In 1953 Hemingway and his fourth wife returned to the scene of his safari with his second wife in 1933. Look subsidized the trip with lavish fees: $15,000 for a picture story of the hunting, with photos by Earl Theisen, and another $10,000 for a 3500-word article that appeared in the magazine in January 1954. The government of Kenya, then a British colony, persuaded Philip Percival (whod hunted with Teddy Roosevelt and with Hemingway on the first safari) to come out of retirement in the hope of reviving tourism which was being threatened by the Mau Mau rebellion.
After the safari, Percival, Theisen, Hemingways son Patrick, and his Cuban friend Mayito Menocalwhod actually shot the leopard that Hemingway posed with on the cover of Lookwent home, and Hemingway was left alone with his wife Mary and a cadre of loyal retainers. The action of this fictional memoir takes place from November 30 to December 20, at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro on the Kenya-Tanganyika border. In a letter to me of August 24, 1983, Denis Zaphiro, the game warden of the Kajiado Districtwho appears in the book under the affectionate nickname of G.C. (Gin Crazed)described Hemingways habits and tastes: Ernest was not all that interested in shootingexcept lion. He did not, for instance, shoot or even want to shoot an elephant. After everyone had left, he preferred to drive around and look at the animals. He didnt shoot his lion on either occasion. He loved Africa. He loved to sit in it and watch it. He had a natural knowledge of what animals would do and where they would be. He was always reading, reading. Carried soft covers and papers and magazines in his pockets all the time. He read whenever the pace slowed.
The original version of True at First Light, written between 195456, was 850 manuscript pages or some 200,000 words. Ten years after Hemingways death, in December 1971 and January 1972, Sports Illustrated published 55,000 words with the bland title An African Journal. Patrick Hemingway has condensed and edited the original to 100,000 words, which is still far too long and repetitive. Hemingway didnt seem to know where the book was going or how to finish it.
No one at Scribners, which has earned millions and millions of dollars from Hemingways books, has bothered to open a dictionary and check his notoriously inaccurate spelling of foreign words. Not only does Patricks grammar break down in the long sentence on page eight, but many words are printed incorrectly; Thessinger for Thesiger, numero for numéro, dusk for dust, Milanesa for Milanese, liberta for libertà, triomfera for trionfara, and Campostella for Campostela.
Instead of inventing from knowledge, as in his brilliant African storiesThe Snows of Kilimanjaro and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber (both 1936)or finding a new autobiographical technique to deal with the African experience, Hemingway merely repeats in First Light the old faults of Green Hills of Africa (1935). With inflated egoism, he recounts his own and Marys exploits, patronizes the loyal and stupid sons of cannibals, and is greatly revered by the servants he pays to admire him. Edmund Wilson, as usual, was deadly accurate when he observed that Hemingway is likely to become fatuous or maudlin as soon as he begins to write in the first person. In Green Hills, at least, his malicious comments on writers and books were stimulating. In First Light, he makes few significant comments and merely mentions the authors hes been reading: Virgil, Machiavelli, Duff Cooper, Alan Paton, and Georges Simenon. His allusions to Ouida, Kipling, Rupert Brooke, and Lord Nelsons last words are more amusing.
Hemingways digressions are often more interesting than the main text. His account of meeting Orwell at the Ritz Hotel in Paris in February-March 1945 (when they were both war correspondents) confirms what he told the journalist Harvey Breit and what Orwell told the Canadian poet Paul Potts. He was very gaunt and looked in bad shape, Hemingway writes, and I asked him if he would not stay and eat. Orwell wanted to borrow a pistol because They were after him, and Hemingway provided the weapon from his small arsenal. But he patronized Orwell, while doubting the danger, and offered to protect him: I could give him a couple of people who could look after him if They were after him. But Orwell had good reason to be afraid. The Russian secret police had hunted him in Spain and, after Homage to Catalonia, considered him an even more dangerous enemy. When the Germans were defeated and the Communists emerged from underground, a lot of people were shot.
The main themes of First Light are Marys hunt for a black-maned lion, which has to be killed, as if to compensate for Hemingways faux leopard, according to his unwritten code; the threat of the Mau Mau; the danger of marauding elephants; and Hemingways courtship of the African girl, Debba. But Mary is no Margot Macomber and her pursuit of the lion is insignificant; the Mau Mau, operating north of Nairobi, never materialize; the elephants are a ruse to lure Hemingway away and leave the camp undefended; and his pursuit of Debbain the book as in real lifenever gets beyond frottage. In short, nothing much happens. As expectations are raised but not satisfied, Hemingway is constantly engaged in that characteristic occupation of men, planning the operation which will never take place.
Hemingway insists on calling his wife Miss Mary, which tries to make her virginal when shes had many lovers and several husbands. Shes a dull character, constantly bitching at him because she has to hunt the lion his way. He, in turn, mawkishly portrays her as good and fine and brave, beautifully sculptured, compact, irascible and lovely Miss Mary with the head like an Egyptian coin, the breasts from Rubens. Shes built, he claims, like Debbathough Debba is about fifteen and Mary is forty-five. He also gives us an account of their thrice-a-night lovemaking, which he compares to a shower of meteors on a cold night. In reality, Hemingway treated Mary very badly. Her greatest strength was her ability to keep up with his drinking (she died an alcoholic) and to endure a lot of punishment. He slyly reveals her limitations when he describes Lawrences view of the Indians and she foolishly asks: Which Lawrence were you talking about, D. H. or T. E.? Her insistent desire to fly to the Belgian Congo led to the two disastrous plane crashes that took place in January 1954 (right after this book ends), destroyed his health, and propelled him on the path to suicide.
Things pick up a bit when Mary flies to Nairobi to buy Christmas presents and Hemingway is free to pursue Debba, whom Mary tolerated (she had no choice) but naturally disliked. He admires Debbas lovely impudence, the way she butts her head against his chest when they meet and her maidenly breasts: the two lovely hills that she carried so proudly and modestly. He fancies that she sometimes imitates the behavior of Queen Elizabeth at her recent coronation and sometimes reminds him of the Indians of his youth in the Michigan woods. He speaks Spanish to her, his language of intimacy, though she doesnt understand a word. Debba, like Mary, loves him for the things he buys for her in the local store.
Though Hemingway had mocked the white settlers who wore pistols in the bars of the Nairobi hotels and said it was the only way they can feel something hard against their legs, he likes to have Debba feel the embossing on the old leather holster of my pistol and rest her hand on his private parts. He amuses himself with Debba when hes bored with Mary. Instead of describing their lovemaking, which makes him feel guilty, he emphasizes his frustration when her vigilant mother prevents them from sleeping together on the day in my life which offered the most chances of happiness.
When the publication of this book was announced, some English newspapers, desperate for an angle, rang me up to ask if Hemingway was really serious about taking the Nubile Savage as a second wife. Zaphiro had punctured the romantic pretense by calling her an evil-smelling bit of camp trash. Debba was part of Hemingways attempt to get back in touch with the primitive forces of Africa. Though going native was especially frowned upon during the Mau Mau rebellion, he shaved his head, dyed his clothes the rusty Masai color, hunted with a Masai spear and fancied himself a polygamous African warrior. (Mary warned: You get too tribal for your own good.) Conrads darker, more suggestive description in Heart of Darkness of Kurtzs mistress standing on the jungly shore as Marlow steams up the Congo River is the real thing: along the lighted shore moved a wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman she was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent, there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress. Hemingways absurd courtship is just self-mockery. His real connection with the primitive occurs when hes tracking a leopard and puts a sharp bone fragment from the wounded animal in his mouth (I did it without thinking). As it cuts the inside of his cheek, he writes, I could taste the familiarity of my own blood now mixed with the blood of the leopard.
The faults of this book are obvious, its merits more subtle, and True at First Light calls for some critical discrimination. It has a weak and wobbly structure. Most chapters begin mechanically with waking up and eating, and end with drinking and going to sleep. Theres an excess of pidgin Swahili, which soon becomes wearisome. Hemingways daughter-in-law told me that his speech in this book, a mixture of the trivial and ponderous, is exactly the way he spoke and thats exactly the problem. He should have heeded Gertrude Steins admonition: Remarks are not literature. Begin over again and concentrate.
Unlike many readers, I dont mind Hemingway and Mary killing animals, but its awfully tedious to hear their self-justifications. Hes my lion, Mary insists, and I love him and respect him and I have to kill him. But theres no categorical imperative. She has to kill him only because shes paid a lot of money to do so. Hemingway writes that I lay down by the lion and talked to him very softly in Spanish and begged his pardon for us having killed him and while I lay beside him I felt for the wounds. After the lion is skinned white and naked, Mary states: Hes dignified again as when he was alive, as if her killing confers dignity, not death. But as Hemingway observes, in a rare moment of lucidity, All Great White Hunters were touching about how they loved the game and hated to kill anything. It would be more honest to admit that theyre both driven by bloodthirsty egoism.
The great strengths of the book, apart from the primitivistic theme, are the descriptions of the Rift Valley landscape and the wild animals, his acute reflections about guilt, drink, and loss, and his mixing memory and desire (as in the great flashbacks of Kilimanjaro) while recalling the glorious days in Michigan, Paris, and the Rockies, and towns with only one street [that] make the same feeling as a small boat, a narrow channel, the headwaters of a river or the trail up over a pass.
The best passages are tempered by his classic virtues: intense curiosity, passion for learning and for mastery, testing of himself and others. He compares waiting to hunt to a matador waiting for a bullfight, then captures the excitement of pursuing the animals: I jumped for the handlehold by the front seat as the rhino came smashing out through the vines and creepers. A wounded lion disappears like an actor behind a curtain: He was into the grass now and only his head and shoulders showed; then only his head; the grass swaying and closing behind him. After the kill, the wildebeest (unlike the skinned lion) had no dignity and lay there glassy-eyed and big-bellied, his head at an absurd angle, his gray tongue protruding, like a hanged man. As the vultures watch the lions feed on a zebra, he reveals the true rapacity of nature: they stayed in the trees but the closest ones were almost overbalanced by hunger. He can also mock his own blood lust as well as British insouciance. In order neither to sadden nor enrage baboon lovers I will give no details, he states ironically, after a day of bloody baboon control. When he lines up the grotesque corpses, G.C. appears and speaks as if theyd been grouse-shooting on the Scottish moors: Babooning, I see. Two brace. A splendid bag. Going to have them set up by [the taxidermist] Roland Ward?
Hemingway throws some light on his heavy drinking, which increased after the plane crashes, when his damaged body could no longer tolerate the alcohol. Drink makes him brave against the nightmares, but also deadens as well as heightens his teeming brain: It was a purposeful dulling of a receptivity that was so highly sensitized, as film can be, that if your receptiveness were always kept at the same level it would become unbearable.
The contrast between the younger and older Hemingway on the two safariswhat Joyces Leopold Bloom calls Me. And me nowinevitably wakens a sense of loss. There are an awful lot of things Im not sure I can go back to, he observes, though he can still recapture his most vital memories. The best part of the book is a two-page recollection of a gory incident in the Rockies, sparked by the sight of African eagles soaring in the air currents.
Suddenly, hes at the top of a pass in our own mountains with a .22 rifle waiting for eagles to come to a dead horse that had been bear bait until the bear was killed. He explains that his horses hoof had split and he couldnt be ridden, so he shoots him and all of him dropped together and he was a bear bait. When he returns to the kill, the bear has eaten the horses guts and the eagles have torn out his eyes. One came, finally, dropping like the sound of an incoming shell and breaking, with double-forward pinions and feathered legs and talons thrust forward to hit Old Kite as though he were killing him. Hemingway watches them devour his old horse, then begins to slaughter them. Catching an eagle thats been wounded by his shot and is large enough to carry off a bighorn lamb, he smashes its head against a tree. The eagles have acted as predators must act, but Hemingway, mastered by the brute blood of the air, gets caught up in the cycle of slaughter. Hes seen the savagery and, like Conrads Kurtz, becomes savage himself.