Green Hills of Africa — Ernest Hemingway

I recall reading this Ernest Hemingway memoir of an East African hunting expedition while I was still in High School.  My memory is that I didn’t love it, but there were a few golden passages sprinkled through the book that kept it from being a complete waste of time.  I had not yet visited Africa in those days, and despite my addiction to television wildlife programs, I never suspected that I would … it was far too distant and exotic to be real.  So I had no real reference point by which to judge the book other than pure literary merit.  But then, as now, I had no claims to literary wisdom beyond a simple awareness of what I liked and didn’t like.  I read GHOA again a couple of weeks ago and found it sufficiently disturbing to rate a blog entry.


I think that any book, fiction or otherwise, should be evaluated within the framework of its own era.  That’s one of the reasons I’m able to read and enjoy the poems of the politically incorrect but indisputably gifted Rudyard Kipling.  But Hemingway, and GHOA in particular, are notable exceptions to this standard.  The rare, beautiful passages were much more difficult to locate in this reading than I’d expected, and the book was offensive on almost every level.


Ernest Hemingway is one of the most respected and revered of the great 20th century American writers.  But his magic has always eluded me (there are two exceptions … I’ll save them for a later post).  I’m rarely at ease with his prose, but I found the writing in GHOA to be unusually annoying.  Here’s a sample:


“So in the morning, again, we started ahead of the porters and went down and across the hills and through a deeply forested valley and then up and across a long rise of country with high grass that made the walking difficult and on and up and up and down and across, all in high grass, now, that you had to break a trail in, and the sun was very hot.”


Lovely.  I think EH inflicted that sentence on us because he wanted the reader to feel the undulations and repetitions in the sentence as he felt them in the land.  In one respect it was effective – the reader is as worn out from the sentence as the author is with the hunt.  There are additional examples of inelegant writing on virtually every page.  The most egregious example is in the third paragraph of Chapter 8.  There is a single sentence that includes 420 words (the number may be imprecise … word counting without a computer can be problematic).  And the tragedy is that the point of the sentence is both valid and important … but at about mid-page the reader loses interest in the substance of the writing to focus on, and stand in awe of, the sheer volume of words.


EH’s sense of humor is also deeply disconcerting.  He is consistently disrespectful of the guides and natives, and seems to take great joy in ridiculing them.  They are obviously a lesser species … and he speaks of them without reverence or appreciation, assigning them absurd monikers based on their appearance or behavior.  His awkward attempts at humor tend to bludgeon the reader.  On page 124 he draws a bead on an unsuspecting Maasai strolling across a valley floor for the sole purpose of eliciting a reaction from the guide he calls Garrick (after the legendary Thespian David Garrick … so named because of his theatrical demeanor):


“a Maasai walked down the center of the valley while we were glassing it and when I pretended I was going to shoot him Garrick became very dramatic insisting it was a man, a man!

     ‘Don’t shoot men?’ I asked him.

     ‘No! No! No!” he said putting his hand to his head.  I took the gun down with great reluctance …”


In another passage:


“… I thought what a pleasure it would be to shoot David Garrick in the behind, just to see the look on his face, sometime when he was dramatizing a stalk …”


In yet another, EH seems to make some awkward progress in acknowledging the humanity of his hosts:


“Kamau was very modest, quiet, and an excellent driver and now, as we came out of the bush country, and into an open, scrubby, desert looking stretch, I looked at him, whose elegance, achieved with an old coat and a safety pin, whose modesty, pleasantness and skill I admired so much now, and thought how, when we first were out, he had very nearly died of fever, and that if he had died it would have meant nothing to me except that we would be short a driver …”


But EH reached the apex of Mt Arrogance in his depictions and treatment of the African animals.  As I pored through this book there were several times when I imagined the Hemingway hunting expedition from an aerial perspective.  It seemed, looking down, that the entire circle of life within the 360 degree radius of rifle range was blasted without hesitation or discrimination … be it guinea fowl, wart hog or traditional “big game.”  The most pathetic example was his murderous onslaught against the hyena (not a favorite animal – see my earlier post).  EH took particular joy in describing the confused loops the dying animals executed during the brief span between gunshot and collapse.


I tried to identify the African location of the Hemingway expedition based on the descriptions of the land … and because of his repeated references to Manyara I think it must have been in present day Tanzania, somewhere between Tarangire and the Ngorongoro Highlands.  As he described the animals he’d plugged, I made a mental list of the wildlife that is now rare or extinct in that region.  It includes sable, roan antelope, kudu, reedbuck, gerenuk, rhino and oryx.  There may be more.  But EH, and others like him, seemed to believe that the ego gratification associated with hanging a kudu head on the wall of the den superseded any right the animal may have had to graze, drink and breath.  Hemingway is not the only hunter I’ve known to lovingly describe the beauty of the prey, but he may be the most eloquent.


“It was a huge, beautiful kudu bull, stone-dead, on his side, his horns in great dark spirals, wide-spread and unbelievable as he lay dead five yards from where we stood when I had just that instant shot.”


In EH’s mind, the highest tribute he could pay to such an animal was to destroy it.  Attitudes have changed for the better across the decades, but the impact of the big game hunters on East African wildlife is still evident … the oryx, roan, sable and rhino that were once widespread in northern Tanzania are now confined to isolated pockets and reserves.   I like to think that if EH were with us today and had it all to do again, he’d do his shooting with a Nikon or a Canon.


All quotes from GHOA were extracted from the 1998 Scribner’s Classics edition.

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