Chapter 16: Africa

“Fulfillment of an old dream, Mr. Hemingway?”

“Yes it was. I had dreamed of going to Africa ever since I was a kid looking at the photographs of Roosevelt’s safari.”

“Yes, we know that Roosevelt was your hero. But in 1918 your ‘industrial accident’ showed you the difference between war as Roosevelt had portrayed it, and war as it actually was. Didn’t you worry that Roosevelt’s description of Africa might be similarly – at variance with the facts?”

“You want to portray him as a fake, too?”

A moment’s silence while the words echoed in his mind.

“Is that your impression of the portrait we are revealing, Mr. Hemingway? That you were a fake?”

“It’s an accusation I’ve heard often enough.”

“Often enough to half-believe it?” The prosecutor paused a beat, to let it sink in. “Let’s press on. As it happened, your own expedition was smaller than you had hoped for.”

“As fast as I made plans, they kept getting undone. I had a few of the mob more or less committed to go in the fall of 1931, and then after that car accident, I needed time for my arm to recover its strength. So then we planned for 1932, but Uncle Gus was going to finance it for us by selling $25,000 worth of stock, and 1932 was not the time to sell stock, so he asked us to put off the expedition one more year. By the fall of 1933, the only guy who could still come was Karl – Charles Thompson. Pauline wanted to come too, and after all it was her uncle’s money, so it was the three of us.”

“You had to settle for a mob of three, so to speak. Not quite the men-only crowd you liked.”

“No. But what you draw is what you get.”

And how did Africa affect you?”

An  overwhelming remembered feeling of sadness. “It was already half lost by the time we got there. Civilization was destroying the natural world there, like everywhere else. That’s why my book starts with the hunt being spoiled by the noise of a motorcar driven by somebody who knew my work from another world. Africa in 1933 was under siege already, and I could see that it wasn’t going to last long.”

“And is it possible that what you saw in the outside world was also playing out within you?”

He sighed, or the equivalent. “I suppose you’re going to show me.”

“Do we need to bring your parents back to the stand?”

“No, I get it. The war between them became a war inside me, so I saw it outside of me, too.”

“You could take sides in your mind, but your heart was going to remain divided. Should that be surprising to a novelist?”

“No, you couldn’t write it that way. Even if all your sympathy was with one character, you’d have to understand the point of view of the other characters, if you were going to make them act believably.”

“So, spell it out for us.”

He waited until it surfaced. “Inside me, I had one person living my father’s values and another living my mother’s, and they were always fighting for the steering wheel. One part took up for my mother and led me to art museums and libraries, and the other part followed dad, and wanted wildness and adventure and a release from all the obligations people were always putting on you.”

“So, when you observed civilization overtaking the last good country?”

“It was mother defeating dad, all over again, sure. Except, it wasn’t that simple.”

“No, not that simple. But does this give you insight into certain emotions you experienced in the wild?”

“Yes it does. Yes. Thank you.”

And that “thank you” was also a first, but it would take him a while to realize it.

“Mr. Hemingway, about your wife accompanying you on the safari. Did you begrudge her being there?”

“No, I was glad to have her. She was someone else from my world to talk to, and to share reading books with, and to share a bed with.”

“But –“

“But it doesn’t matter who’s involved, men in the presence of women are different than men without women.”

“The male band of hunters, an old archetype.”

“Well, it’s true. And there’s something else. A woman on a safari, even if she is just as good a shot, just as strong, just as experienced, you’re going to have the instinct to protect her, it’s biological. It’s a complication. And if she doesn’t want you to protect her, you have to figure out how to do it without her quite knowing.”

“And was that the case with Pauline?”

“Pauline was brave and she had great endurance. But she was not as good a shot, and not as strong, and sometimes she would get bull-headed about something she didn’t know enough about. Also, she was short, which meant she was in greater danger in tall grass. Like I say, It was complicated.”

“The prosecution recalls Pauline Pfeiffer Hemingway.”

.2.

“Mrs. Hemingway, you have heard the defendant’s testimony just now. Please tell the court your experience of the defendant on safari. What did you see, watching him?”

“I saw a man who was an obsessive hunter, and a keen observer, and a literary genius, and a mercurial story-teller, and a man who had his own demons to wrestle, and not so incidentally my husband, all rolled up into one.”

“Do you see Green Hills of Africa  as your husband prettying up his self-portrait?”

“Mr. Prosecutor, have you actually read that book? If anything, he may have been a little too hard on himself, for artistic reasons. If you look closely at that book, you will see that it was Ernest portraying himself, using everything else as explanatory background. The jungle, the animals, his reading, his conversations, his memories and day-dreaming, the details of the hunt, the texture of the evenings, civilization intruding – he was setting out his internal and external experience together.”

“So, the book was true but the facts were – fluid, shall we say?”

“That’s a good description of Ernest’s whole life!”

“Did his stories of that trip remain consistent over time?”

“Oh no, they kept changing. He would run things over and over in his mind, and they would look different according to what he associated them with. Then when he would talk about them, the details would get rearranged to fit the new context, and the same facts would add up to an entirely different story. He would tell a story the way it ought to have happened, and I think he sometimes forgot which set of facts was actual and which was made up. He was always dealing in fiction, written or not.”

“In order to participate in this expedition, you had to leave your home and children for several months. Were you really as taken with the idea as was your husband?”

“I didn’t marry Ernest on a whim. I put him first in everything. If he wanted me to join him on safari, I was willing. I wish I had been a better shot, but that couldn’t be helped.”

“So why, in your opinion, were you characterized in the book as Poor Old Mama?”

“I was P.O.M in the camp, too, not just in the book. It was his way of reminding the others that I was his woman, plus thinking of me as P.O.M. made it easier for the men to deal with me. They didn’t want to treat me as a lady, nor did I want them to, and they couldn’t quite treat me as one of the boys. So P.O.M gave me my own special niche. It served its purpose. I had no reason to complain.”

“In functioning as a stand-in for your husband’s usual mob, did you experience yourself as something of a Greek chorus?”

She laughed. “Everyone in Ernest’s life experienced themselves as something of a Greek chorus.”

“Your honor, the prosecution calls Charles Thompson, known as Carl.”

.3.

“Mr. Thompson, at the time of the safari, you and the defendant were friends. Good enough friends that you weren’t concerned about spending several months together, him picking up the tab?”

“It wouldn’t have been any fun for him, going alone. It was barely enough that he had Pauline and Percival and me. And even if he had assembled his usual mob, I would have been included. I got along good with them. When the rest of them couldn’t make it, he wanted me along even more.”

“You didn’t feel like a poor relation, along on sufferance?”

“That isn’t how it was. We were friends. At home, when he and Pauline needed something we could do for them, they asked, and we were happy to do it. That’s what friends do. This was something he could do for me, and I could do it for him because I could take the time.”

“And how well do you think it worked out, looking back?”

“I had a good time when we were there, but the more time went by, the more amazing it got, thinking about it. You know, my life afterwards stayed about what it was, but Ernest kept getting more and more famous. And after a while I would tell myself, `I spent months in Africa with the Hemingways,’ and it got harder and harder to believe.”

“In Green Hills of Africa, the defendant described his own struggle against feelings of jealousy as you continuously out-shot him and brought back better trophy heads. Do you think this was one reason why your paths later diverged?”

“No, our lives just went in different directions. The fact that I was having better luck never became personal, and it didn’t have any lasting effect on us.”

“If it had, I wouldn’t have been able to put it into the book, Karl.”

“That’s what I thought, too, Ernest. And at the end you got over it.”

“But while the hunt was going on, were you not concerned about the possibility of a breach between you if you continued to excel?”

“That’s the second time you said I was shooting better than he was, and that just isn’t true. I wasn’t out-shooting him, I was getting better heads. That kind of thing isn’t under anybody’s control.”

“I see. Nonetheless, the defendant himself conceded in print that he found it hard to deal with repeatedly coming up short in this de facto competition. Weren’t you concerned, as well?”

“Of course I was, we all were. But you have to let somebody fight that kind of thing out with himself, there isn’t much you can do about it.”

“Were you ever tempted to come back empty-handed, just to keep peace in the family?”

Thompson just looked at him in disbelief. “If you wanted to find the one surest way to turn Ernest from a friend into a mortal enemy, that would be it. That would be that same as telling him, `I’m a better hunter than you are, and I can afford to try to spare your feelings.’ He’d be furious, and he would have a right to be.”

“So, when you eventually read Green Hills of Africa, did it strike you as a fair rendering of the experience?

“He saw stuff I didn’t see, and he thought about things I never thought about, and he wrote about stuff that was beyond me, really, but he didn’t write it in a way to make himself the big hero. I didn’t have any complaints. And, like I said, the longer time went on, the bigger it all seemed to me.”

“No further questions, your honor.”

And he was gone, with all the memories he brought back. It was strange how life took you away from friends, from people you genuinely liked being around, and missed when you thought about them.

.4.

“Your honor, the prosecution calls Philip Percival.”

By now he had become accustomed to people appearing as they had looked when he knew them, but it was still a pleasant shock to see Percival as he had been in the 1930s, instead of as he had last seen him, 20 years later.

“Mr. Percival, as a professional hunter in British East Africa you had accompanied former president Roosevelt on his safari. No doubt you and the defendant discussed that expedition?”

“To be sure. Hemingway wanted to know everything about it: what Roosevelt liked to eat, the differences in the number and variety of game in 1909 as opposed to then, changes in the relations of Europeans and natives since the war – everything and anything. As I think back upon it, the only person I ever knew who had a comparable curiosity was Roosevelt himself. Hemingway was very like Col. Roosevelt. He was a whole man, active in mind and body, immensely competitive. He was impulsive, energetic, had great stamina. He shot intelligently and well, having to overcome the defects in his vision that required him to wear eyeglasses – again like Roosevelt, in fact. Also like Roosevelt, he was extraordinarily interesting, a good story-teller and again a good listener, and he was in love with Africa. He loved its size, and emptiness, and the fact that it remained untamed. For a time, I believe he fantasized about coming out and living among us.”

“Mr. Percival, what would you say were Mr. Hemingway’s chief shortcomings?”

“I don’t know about shortcomings, but his greatest challenge seemed to be to control his drive to excel. That drive made him what he was, of course, but he seemed to find it almost unbearably painful to himself against others, and come up short. I cannot say whether that challenge may rightly be described as a shortcoming. However, one ought to notice the lines toward the end of the book, showing that he as author was aware of it.”

“Thank you, Mr. Percival. The prosecution recalls the defendant to the stand.”

.5.

“Mr. Hemingway, discussing your African safari offers as good a time as any to look at the role that hunting played in your life, and fishing. You hunted and fished extensively. Why is this?”

“Why? Hell, I don’t know. Does there have to be a why? I grew up hunting and fishing. My father taught me to fish from the time I could walk, practically. My grandfather gave me a shotgun when I was ten. These were things I enjoyed. They offered a chance to test yourself against the animals and against other hunters or fishers. They kept you outdoors in all weather, helped you keep fit. And of course if you acquired a skill, you had to practice, if you wanted to keep it and develop it.”

“Did it ever bother you, killing things just for fun?”

“In my family we were taught never to kill something we didn’t intend to eat. The meat wasn’t wasted. In Wyoming, what we didn’t eat, Nordquist smoked, and it helped get his family through the winter. In Havana, when we would come in with fish we couldn’t sell, we would give it away, and the poor were always plenty glad to get it.”

“Understand, I am asking, beyond the skill involved in tracking an animal or out-thinking it, why the enjoyment in killing it?”

He sank into his feelings, came back out again.

“Hunting and fishing are like bullfighting, in a way. They go back way before our civilization. They put us into contact with parts of ourselves we might never know otherwise. They carry us back to the old days when it was us against the physical world.”

“When cave men used a 30.06 to hunt saber-tooth tigers, you mean?”

He grinned. “You can bet the cave man would have used a 30.06 if he could have gotten his hands on one! But I see your point. You always use the latest thing, and every year you wind up carrying more things from the same civilization you’re trying to escape. My dad used to camp out with a blanket and a pup tent and a sack of food, and by the time Pauline and Carl and I went to Africa, we had to have boxes of books, and plenty of liquor, and gaslight, and baths. But even so, hunting and fishing stop you from losing your last link with what we used to be.”

“Mr. Hemingway, how would you answer those who say that you engaged in hunting and fishing mainly because they were socially acceptable excuses for inflicting pain and death?”

“You aren’t out to inflict pain. You try to kill the animal, not hurt it.”

“But the rest of it?”

“I’ll say it again. Hunting puts us in touch with the most primitive thing in us – and that primitive part of us has its rights! It’s going to come out someplace. If you hold it down in one place, it’s going to break out somewhere else, whether you like it or not. Maybe if we had more hunters and fewer office-workers, we’d have less piled-up tension that leads to crazy wars and senseless violence.

“Maybe people need for life to have an edge on it. I certainly did. Take bullfighting. The torero isn’t exactly taking advantage of the bull! The man doesn’t go in there with a rifle. He goes in there with his skill and his courage and his sword and cape, and at any given time, he is not likely to die, but it is damn near certain that sooner or later he’s going to get wounded, and then he will have to go back into the ring the next time, with his body knowing full well what could happen. And that’s the edge, you see. That’s living right in that moment.”

“But not everybody can be a bullfighter.”

“No. But there are other ways. Betting more money than you can afford to lose, that’s one way. Or, boxing. Boxing is great fun, pretty harmless. There’s nothing wrong with trading a bloody nose, or bruises, or something, as long as you’re taking the same risk and it’s a fair fight. It’s good exercise, and it’s not likely to really hurt anybody, if it’s a friendly match.”

“And with respect to competition?”

“Well, that enters into it, sure. You’re competing against your friends, and against the record. It adds interest. And if you don’t understand competition, you don’t understand me. What else do you have, but competition, to show you how you’re doing?”

“Is this why you discussed your career as if you were prize-fighting against various great writers?”

“Sure.”

“So even the thing you cared about most passionately in your life had to become a competition for you?”

“I can see that maybe it seems silly to you. But if you don’t care how you’re doing relative to the best, you aren’t ever going to be champion. If you want to be the champ, you’re going to have to compete – against others, against your own best, against the record books, against the clock.”

“Some might argue that this need to compete indicates insecurity.”

“Let ’em. I’d argue back that maybe it’s insecurity if you are unwilling to measure yourself against others. If you don’t compete, you’ll never know.”

“You couldn’t ever switch that competitive instinct off, could you?”

“I couldn’t ever switch my temper off either, not reliably. I didn’t pretend to be perfect. But I was what I was. And how did you like what I was in 1960, when they had burned the competition out of me?”

“Mr. Hemingway, it is clear that this expedition was a treasured memory. But is it possible that this safari was the origin of the Hemingway myth that later plagued your life?”

“I was famous for the books I wrote, not the animals I hunted.”

“But perhaps the safari helped convince the intellectuals that you were merely one of the idle rich.”

He laughed. “Idle!”

“But that is how they thought of  you, you see.”

“Listen, the intellectuals were never going to understand me, and they were never going to support me, especially the leftists. They saw everything through the framework of politics and ideology, and they believed in panaceas, where I didn’t even believe in governments, really. Besides, they envied my success. None of that would have changed if I had never gone on safari. To me, the difference between deep-sea fishing and the safari was mainly that I could fish any time, but to go to Africa required a lot of planning.”

He thought about it.

“It’s true that once that glamorizing process began, it became profitable for people to feed it, and feed off of it. They made me `news.’ The Hollywood image machine used me, relentlessly and ruthlessly. The image grew, and it grew, and it had nothing to do with my work, which means it had nothing to do with me. It went on grinding for its own purposes. They created the Hemingway Myth, and whatever fed the myth got magnified and anything that didn’t fit got ignored, or attacked as phony. Maybe it started because of the safari, I don’t know.”

 

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