Santiago and la mar

I mentioned on Sunday that I had re-read The Old Man and the Sea and had a completely different reaction to it than I did years ago when I read it in high school. Then it had seemed tedious and inaccessible. Something about an old man in Cuba going fishing was just too far away from me. But I don’t feel that way at all anymore. And I also don’t feel like it’s tedious.

The Old Man and the SeaOn the contrary, one of the most striking things in my recent reading was the way the book felt like a single solid entity. Hemingway’s sentences are always solid, and here they are like bricks building up the novella with no cracks. There are no chapters or breaks between paragraphs, instead the text works inexorably toward its conclusion. And maybe it’s because I went into it knowing what would happen, but I think this really gives a sense of the structure paralleling the story and that it’s very effective.

And what of the old man and the sea? There is more here than I could possibly talk about or make sense of. What I think really comes through is Hemingway’s attachment to the sea. Is Santiago a fair proxy for his feelings? I can only assume as much. And he gives us a convenient summary:

He always thought of the sea as la mar which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as el mar which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.

That’s got to be as much pure Hemingway as Santiago.

Santiago loves not only the sea but also her animals. “Why did they make birds so delicate and fine as those sea swallows when the ocean can be so cruel?” “…he looked ahead and saw a flight of wild ducks etching themselves against the sky over the water, then blurring, then etching again and he knew no man was ever alone on the sea.” “He loved green turtles and hawk-bills with their elegance and speed and their great value and he had a friendly contempt for the huge, stupid loggerheads…” And of course he loves and respects his fish. A few things he does not like, like the Portuguese men o’ war. And the sharks. But who could blame him for that?

But for all that love, Santiago is punished for going “too far out.” What a fable.

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