Saturday, January 26, 2013

“The Old Man And The Sea” – Book Review



This year on my winter vacation, I continued my annual tradition of reading an Ernest Hemingway book with his classic, “The Old Man And The Sea”.  What made me pick this one?  Well, after doing a small bit of research, I came to learn that this was the 60 year anniversary since its publication; it won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the following year and the Nobel Prize for Literature the year after that.  Given that coincidence, it seemed like an appropriate choice for this year’s read.

A bit of background about the book, in case it’s unfamiliar to you:  “The Old Man And The Sea” is considered Hemingway’s last major work that was published during his lifetime (although other significant books were released posthumously following his suicide in 1961).    Although the story takes place mostly at sea, its location is basically Cuba, where the author lived for a few years after leaving Key West, Florida; he ultimately left Cuba some time after Fidel Castro’s takeover, following a falling out between himself and the nation’s new leader. 

The Old Man And The Sea” is what’s technically referred to as a novella – either a really long short story or a really short (one chapter, in this case) novel, depending on how you look at it.  It is a story about an elderly fisherman named Santiago and his mentoring relationship with Manolin, a young man who aspires to learn the skills of fishing so that he may pursue this as a career and carry on the long, proud tradition into another generation.  Manolin has been joining Santiago on his fishing expeditions for quite some time now, but at the exhortation of his parents, has ended this relationship because they believe Santiago to be unlucky since he has not caught anything for nearly three months.  On his next fishing trip, Santiago is forced to go out all by himself in order to catch a marlin which he can sell for a huge profit upon returning to his village.  Following a protracted struggle with the valiant fish, Santiago finally catches the marlin and attaches it to the side of his skiff before making his way back to land – but will Santiago be able to fend off the predatory sharks accompanying him on his journey or will he be forced to return empty handed after his efforts? 

Subsequent to my reading of “The Old Man And The Sea”, I decided to extend my research with a critical analysis of the book.  I find doing so to be an invaluable aid in providing a deeper understanding and appreciation of what I’ve just read, as well as either confirming or rejecting beliefs I formed during my reading.  Additionally, it fills in areas I either missed altogether or found to be rather murky.  This research forced me to come to terms with the extensive allegory – particularly of a religious nature – that is spread throughout the story, which had eluded me in my original reading. 

As a baseball fan myself, I was especially interested in the discussion of the sport, which also pops up at various points in the book – The New York Yankees and Joe DiMaggio (including his bone spurs).  The analysis addressed one of the issues I had where Santiago mentions the Yanks losing to the Cincinnati Reds – an impossibility during the regular season since the two teams play in different leagues.  While I was glad to see the point discussed, quite frankly, I didn’t buy the explanation that it was a way of illustrating the irrationality of fears.  Ultimately, where I did find some degree of accord with the analysis was in terms of its explanation of the human condition -- the story of Santiago as an aging man trying to combat his enervating physical abilities as well as fighting death, loss of dignity, self-respect, virility and the struggle to regain a purpose to his life.

While reading the book during my vacation, I was approached by a woman who told me that she had also read this particular work by Hemingway back when she was in high school; she recalled her impatience with the story, thinking, “Oh, let’s just catch the damned fish already so we can all go home!”.  I understood her frustration; the story occasionally felt somewhat static and overly (perhaps unnecessarily) contemplative and I came away feeling a little disappointed that I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I wanted or anticipated.  Why was this so?  I think I was so focused on the story itself that I ignored the inherent value of how it was written – in other words, I believe I placed too much emphasis on merely completing the book that I totally missed its finer points of style and subtler meaning.  Given how short the book is, it can be re-read reasonably quickly; what with all of the accolades it has earned over the decades – not to mention the fact that it has remained heralded as a classic during all of that time – it deserves a second read on my part … and I fully intend on doing precisely that one of these days. 


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