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Friday, November 22, 2013

The old man had taught the boy to fish and the boy loved him.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Old Man and the Sea is a tale of heroism, an epic battle, and the tender affection between a young boy and a very old man as they fish the seas of the Gulf Stream. The old man, Santiago, taught the young boy, Manolin, to fish, but when our story starts, Santiago has gone 84 days without catching a fish, so Manolin's parents had him switch to working with another (luckier) fisherman. As implied, the story tells the tale of the old man, and it chronicles his solitary journey to the brink of civilized waters. He snares a fantastic marlin and proceeds to use his long-honed skills and limitless patience to capture and kill the fish. In the end, the distance Santiago traveled to find the fish outdoes him, though, and the carcass of the fish, once worth a fortune and a glorious prize, is decimated by intermittent shark attacks on his return journey, rendering it useless. Santiago, exhausted from the ordeal, stumbles home to his tiny shack, where Manolin brings him coffee and watches him sleep as they make promises and plans to fish the wide seas together once more. 
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I really enjoyed this book. I was a little surprised to learn that it had won a Pulitzer (only because I enjoyed A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises a bit more than this one) but it was a very pleasurable read, and it epitomized Hemingway's terse prose and sparse yet powerful imagery. 

Some thoughts, in no particular order:

- The boy
The relationship between the old man and the young boy was exquisitely written. There was a loving tenderness and a selfless quality to both men, and their poverty, while it was evident, did not define either of them. Here's one of my favorite exchanges where they're discussing 'the American baseball'. (The story takes place in Cuba).

Manolin:    'Who is the greatest manager, really, Luque or Mike Gonzalez?'
Santiago:   'I think they are equal.'
Manolin:    'And the best fisherman is you.'
Santiago:    'No. I know others better.'
Manolin:   'Qué va. There are many good fishermen and some great ones. But there is only you.'

- The fishing life ≠ for me
As I read this novel, I got to thinking that I probably wouldn't be able to hack it in the fishing profession.

Reasons I would make a terrible fisher(wo)man:
  • Sleep apnea (I'd fall asleep waiting for the fish to succumb, and then Tra la! Off sneaks the fish!)
  • Not a morning perso(see above reason. At one point after Santiago's been out to sea for at least  2 or 3 hours, he happily glances at the horizon to watch the sun come up. Something's wrong with the order of waking up and sunrise, there, my friend!)
  • Sunburn (for those that haven't seen me, my skin is paler than pale [if she can't find one smaller than small, then she can't go to the Butterfly Ball!] and I have been known to turn Red like Tomato)
  • Don't like raw fish (even when they're part of sushi (I know, le sigh! I've tried!) and Santiago subsists on nothing else during his journey)
  • Bore easily (as I get older, I find my attention span is shorter and shorter. It took me three days to finish this blog! I certainly don't think I could keep my attention on one fish for 36 hours.)
  • Not good at fighting sharks (at least in Santiago's case, this seems to be a requirement. I don't feel confident in this area At All. Especially with limited equipment like half a broken oar. Maybe if I was Really angry, or if I had a killer harpoon or something. Although hunting any animal, even a vicious shark, doesn't really appeal to me.)
- How I would like to be woken up (for those who don't know me, or my version of Sleepy Karl, or just for future reference):
Even though they don't fish together when the book starts, the old man still comes to wake the young boy so they can prepare for the day. I loved the way the old man woke him up:
"The boy was asleep on a cot in the first room and the old man could see him clearly with the light that came in from the dying moon (like I said, it's way too early). He took hold of one foot gently and held it until the boy woke and turned and looked at him. The old man nodded and the boy took his trousers from the chair by the bed and, sitting on the bed, pulled them on.
   The old man went out the door and the boy came after him. He was sleepy and the old man put his arm across his shoulders and said, 'I am sorry.'" (this is the always the appropriate sentiment after waking me up, no matter what time of morning (or early afternoon) it is.)

- Hooking the unknown
Part of what makes Santiago's battle with the fish so epic is that when he hooks the fish (and I would imagine this is often the case in fishing) Santiago can't tell how big he is. He stands guard and wraps the line around himself and endures aches and pains and near starvation for a fish he hasn't even seen! How's that for delayed gratification? Dear children, you may receive your Christmas presents a month early, but only if you don't look at them until December. haghaghaghaghahgagh. Can you imagine?
Santiago:"I wish I could see him. I wish I could see him only once to know what I have against me."

- Stay at my house, by all means
Santiago's only companion during his solitary excursion is, very briefly, a bird. Here's the adorable conversation he makes with it:
"'Take a good rest, small bird. Then go in and take your chance like any man or bird or fish."
'Stay at my house if you like, bird. I am sorry I cannot hoist the sail and take you in with the small breeze that is rising. But I am with a friend.' (aka, the fish. in case you hadn't put that together. for a second, I was all, Oh, Another Bird? Where? And then I thought, DUH, Meredith, he means the fish.)

- Gallstones the size of Golf Balls!
The fish is two feet longer than the skiff, and the old man estimates it's more than a thousand pounds. I'm just going to let that sink in as you imagine a man, some rope, and essentially his bare hands, against a half ton fish.

- Equality of battle, sense of honor
I have mixed feelings about hunting and fishing (I understand the necessity/pleasure, but also feel like I would have a hard time doing it unless push really came to shove) and fishing in particular always seemed a little mean to me. I've never liked imagining someone walking up to me, sticking a metal hook in my jaw, and then yanking hard. But fish aren't people, and I know in many ways it's very different and perhaps more humane than sundry other ways of killing animals. And I still mostly like eating animals, so I just need to suck it up, I guess. But I liked that Hemingway (who I know full well was an avid hunter) recognized the honor of the battle, particularly between such a large and lovely fish and such a patient and venerable fisherman. Here's one of Santiago's musings during their battle:

"You are killing me, fish, the old man thought. But you have a right to. Never have I seen a greater, or more beautiful, or a calmer or more noble thing that you, brother. Come on and kill me. I do not care who kills who."

- Nothing gold can stay
"It was too good to last, he thought. I wish it had been a dream now and that I had never hooked the fish and was alone in bed on the newspapers." 
It was heartbreaking to read the sharks attacking Santiago's fish over and over and over, but at the same time, he truly felt that he had overstepped his boundaries in going so far to seek out the fish. It felt to me like when my mom really wanted something at the store and finally got up the nerve to buy it, but was thwarted. Once it was an umbrella that you got for free with a perfume. She hates perfume generally, but she wanted the umbrella. She also rarely spends money, which makes her wanting something more special in my eyes. Anyway, it was part of a special sale, and I still remember her telling me that she had just decided to go and buy the perfume, but when she got to the store, the sale was over and the umbrellas were gone. Such a simple thing seemed so sad to me. I wanted to be able to shower her with those umbrellas. I still want to. Santiago losing the fish was not perhaps so sad as how quickly he wished he had never hooked it at all. I wanted the fish for Santiago, and I wanted his 84 previous days of not having caught a fish to be justified in some way. I suppose that's what makes the story so lasting. But it still broke my heart. 

Passages I particularly liked:
  • Scars on Santiago's body: "But none of these scars were fresh. There was as old as erosions in a fishless desert."
  • "In the dark the old man could feel the morning coming."
  • "The myriad flecks of the plankton were annulled now by the high sun and it was only the great deep prisms in the blue water that the old man saw now with his lines going straight down into the water that was a mile deep."
  • Santiago, on the fish: "His choice had been to stay in the deep dark water far out beyond all snares and traps and treacheries. My choice was to go there to find him beyond all people. Beyond all people in the world."  
  • "Then the fish came alive, with his death in him, and rose high out of the water showing all his great length and width and all his power and his beauty." I wish I could see this fish. Not just another marlin like the one described, but really see Santiago and the fish high in the air.
  • "I am glad we do not have to try to kill the stars."
I'll leave you with this last tidbit from Santiago as he heads back with the fish to land:

"They were sailing together lashed side by side and the old man thought, let the fish bring me in it if pleases him. I am only better than him through trickery and he meant me no harm."

It reminded me of the line in Ender's Game from the Queen of the Buggers, after Ender has successfully (and unwittingly) destroyed their race:

"We did not mean to murder, and when we understood, we never came again."

I have a bit of a confession to make to all you Devoted readers out there. I know, Gasp! I accidentally already read Fight Club after I finished The Old Man and the Sea, even though The Bell Jar was supposed to be next. I had bought the next few books in advance, and in my head I thought Fight Club came next. (It's supposed to come After The Bell Jar. I took it OUT of the Tulku...) I'll still blog in order (DOn't Fret! I know you were Worried about That!) but just wanted to be honest with my lovely blog enthusiasts. Off I scamper to The Maraca Tin. Join me if you will!

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