The Observer (Kampala)

27 November 2012

Uganda: Book Review - Timeless Hemingway!

Book: The Green Hills of Africa

Author: Ernest Hemingway.

Publisher: Arrow Books, 2004. Originally published in 1936.

Volume: 200 pages.

Cost: Shs 31,500

Available from Aristoc. The three passions of Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) were bull-fighting, deep-sea fishing (The Old Man and the Sea, for which he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954), and big-game hunting.

In Green Hills of Africa, an interesting group of hunters, Americans and Europeans, and trackers go on the trail of kudu, buffalo, and lion. That and their conversations - and these are educated people - is the story. For Hemingway, writing is a work of art; he is not a mercenary writer. Here he describes the death of a hyena. He didn't just die; his death was comic.

"Mirth-provoking was the hyena that stopped out of range by an alkali lake to look back and, hit in the chest, went over on his back, his four feet and his full belly in the air. Nothing could be more jolly than the hyena coming suddenly wedge-headed and stinking out of high grass by a donga, hit at ten yards, who raced his tail in three narrowing, scampering circle until he died."

Or a short, economical description of birds: "A little beyond there a flock of guineas quick-legged across the road jumping steady-headed with the motion of trotters."

Hemingway is also a master of ambiance. "We were...driving into the western sun, the bush thick to the edge of the sand, solid as a thicket, the little hills rising above it, and all along the road we passed groups of people making their way to the westward.

Some were naked except for a greasy cloth knotted over one shoulder, and carried bows and sealed quivers of arrows. Others carried spears. The wealthy carried umbrellas and wore draped white cloth and their women walked behind them, with their pots and pans bundles and loads of skins were scattered along ahead on the heads of others."

In one conversation, Hemingway admits that the United States has not great writers (that is in 1936 when the book was written). Skilful writers, yes; writers of rhetoric, also; those trying to imitate the English classics of the 19th century, even. But no American Dostoevsky; no-one who had been unjustly put in prison, or fought in a war.

American books were born in the comfort of a study or sitting-room. Real writers are forged in injustice, in suffering, not just as an exercise of the imagination. The book takes the reader back to the days of the real, old-time safari when the hunter and his wife - Hemingway travelled with his wife - were ready for anything; sleeping in relative comfort or in the rough, coming face-to-face with a buffalo or a family of baboons.

And the timelessness of the East African plain. No-one checks his watch. The only time references are sunrise, the high midday sun and sunset. In between, the heat of the sun, the shade of the trees, the beauty of nature and the majesty of the game are to be enjoyed.

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