Cheat read: The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Written 1951, in Bimini Islands Novella
The rundown: Santiago is a Cuban fisherman in the winter of his years. He is enduring an 84-day dry run in the fishing stakes. His young apprentice Manolin looks up to him but has been told by his parents that he must only crew for better local fishermen.
Santiago sets out for one last shot at glory into the wide aquamarine off the north coast of the island. He hooks a huge marlin which ends up towing him out to sea and putting up a mammoth struggle at the end of his line. He is exhausted, his energy spent, but eventually manages to master the behemoth and kill it. With the fish tied to the side of his modestly sized skiff, he looks to return home with his hard-won catch.
Need to know: Undergoing as bad a dry patch as poor old Santiago - no coincidence there - Hemingway was sorely in need of something to reinvigorate his profile after a decade in critical obscurity since For Whom The Bell Tolls (1940). The signs were good when in September 1952 Life magazine ran an excerpt of The Old Man and The Sea and proceeded to sell out its five-million print run in two days.
In fairness to him, Hemingway knew that his spare, fable-like parable about a fading master taking on nature in one final bout was, as many now agree, his defining work. "I know that it is the best I can write ever for all of my life, I think, and that it destroys good and able work by being placed alongside of it," he told editor Wallace Meyer, adding that it hopefully would "get rid of the school of criticism that I am through as a writer".
The End: Still exhausted, Santiago and his marlin are set upon by a shark which chomps on his prize. He manages to fight off the attacker but the exposed flesh of the marlin only attracts more sharks. He continues to try and fend them off, using anything to hand in the boat as a possible weapon.
Eventually he lands back ashore with nothing but a giant marlin skeleton and extreme exhaustion to show for his suffering. He carries the mast up to his shack with Christ-like anguish before collapsing into his bed. Manolin tends to him in his shack, while locals down on the beach measure the carcass and deem it the largest that has ever been landed in the region.
The verdict: Hemingway scooped the 1953 Pulitzer and the 1954 Nobel Prize on the back of this slim volume. It set a template that has often been copied but never equalled in terms of linguistic economy and big themes conjoining. Rival and contemporary William Faulkner even conceded: "Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us."
The Old Man and the Sea acts more as a meditation than an outright plot-heavy yarn, with its quiet illumination and elliptic sensuality the major draw.
Did you know? Typically, Hemingway insisted that there was nothing allegorical or symbolic about the tale, telling one critic: "The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man … The sharks are all sharks, no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is sh*t. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know."
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