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"True at First Light." Hemingway Revisited.
A Remarkable, Deluded Man
The Obscenity of Taking a Life.
Revisiting Hemingway Caused Repugnance.
“True at First Light.”
Being a member of the huntin’ shootin’ fishin’ brigade as a young man, like many others of my generation, I worshipped “Papa” Hemingway. His bravery in foreign wars, his great books fictionalizing his experiences, his ability as a boxer, even taking on professional pugilists, his engrossing, pungent, spare prose, and his adventures in Spain and Africa, - even his suicide by shotgun…the list went on.
I had guns myself back in those early days which accompanied me to Australia and the United States; it was much easier then in those permissive times when the world wasn’t so crowded and to be a terrorist had not yet reached the status of a profession. Like Papa, I lived in my own selfish cocoon, caring little for the creatures I shot which, in truth, were few; and not giving a fig for the opinions of everyone else…the classical self-involvement of the young who think life will go on forever; it was created for them, and they can do no wrong.
I had read everything Hemingway had written - time and time again - and kept many of the books. As I got on with my life, Ernest and his veiled braggadocio receded into the past, as did my love of guns and game fishing equipment. I had not realized quite how much love and respect for life had replaced the cowardly desire to annihilate birds and mammals, which I rarely ate, until I came across a book of Papa’s in a boot sale I had not yet read, “True at First Light,” the manuscript he had refused to finish and which had been cobbled together for publication by his son, Patrick, in the year 2000.
This small book is a work poised between fiction and non-fiction and describes Hemingway’s last African safari with his wife, Mary, on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, somewhere south of Nairobi, (the exact location is a bit hazy). Bringing this chronicle to life nearly 40 years after the death of its author makes almost all of the work irrelevant in today’s world which has changed politically, geographically and philosophically since the middle of the last century. I am not attempting to produce a critique of this ageing text, which was typical Hemingway: he playing the white hunter and game warden while Phillip Percival (Mr. P., Pop) was away on business. Percival, in real life, was perhaps the greatest of the white hunters who guided many limp-dick luminaries around Kenya as they blasted the heck out of the fauna and went home and boasted about their bravery. (Hemingway, perhaps in life as well as prose, liked to play second fiddle to someone braver, more appealing to women, and often younger than he was, hence the boxers, matadors, big-game hunters, et al, who came to life on his pages or tarried in his exalted company in real life).
This publication exposes the love/hate relationship between Hemingway and his wife. She won’t forgive him for his part in killing “her” lion. The truth being the woman couldn’t hit a barn door with a 12-gauge from 10 feet and her first shot hit the poor lion in the foot! I also imagine living with Papa would be a chore for a woman, with his neurotic, sarcastic and macho humor and the band of drunks and hangers-on that were his universe.
It was about here that I began to realize just how much I disliked the sodden “Papa” Hemingway; how deluded he had been, and how I had changed over the intervening years. One of the more revolting hypocrisies of man has to be his extolling the bravery and poetry of a creature he has just stolen the life from with a large caliber rifle. I mean, Hemingway and his party of bearers and other “slaves” could have ably fought a small war with the weapons they took with them on a hunt. I found myself hoping the wounded leopard they followed into deep scrub would leap out and devour the lot of them with their crude justification (“it was killing goats“…yes, because you lot had invaded its territory); their bottles of Tusker beer and Gordon’s gin and the fiesta afterwards where Hemingway demonstrated his infidelity with the local native, Debba.
The worst of Hemingway’s hunting type books, and there are several, is his touting the bravery of the men killing lions, leopards, buffalo and rhino, etc., with high powered weapons. Today, poachers don’t make a song and dance about heroism as they assassinate elephants, rhino and the rest with AK 47’s for their meat and ivory. What chance does any wild creature, even as strong and brave as a lion or elephant, have against a bullet from a .500 game rifle, weighing 3 ounces and traveling at 2,000 mph? If it hit’s the head or heart, none at all.
Your author of this humble article today finds taking a life, any life gratuitously, the most obscene thing one creature can do to another. I see the birds as they zoom joyously around the skies or producing symphonies in the treetops, the rabbits as they tear hither and thither, so full of exultation they run into each other playing in the fields. Spiders weaving complex webs and making mummies in my garden. Even tiny flies and other ariel insects, their life as brief as one day, finding love on the wing and exploring every cubic centimeter of the universe as they know it. The water creatures, their cool, three dimensional flight through uncharted seas and bubbling mountain streams. And all the rest. They don’t in the main ever threaten our lives: what right do we have to terminate theirs? The nitrogen cycle is impossible to escape, but to squander the beautiful inhabitants of our universe with no intention or need to use them for sustenance, that is the worst of all crimes. To live with no need for flesh at all should be our ultimate aim.
I wonder if Papa Hemingway, in the solitude of the Idaho morning, drugged by the ultimate cowardice, as he placed the shotgun to have maximum effect, reflected on all the wonderful creatures deprived of their glorious lives by him or one of his paid cohorts. And was there another guiding hand above the triggers?