Hemingway in Africa

by Christopher Ondaatje
ISBN: 0002006707

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Hemingway in Africa
by Andrew Robinson

"The Snows of Kilimanjaro" is one of the world's classic short stories, and one of the most famous fictions written by Ernest Hemingway. It appeared in 1936, two years after Hemingway returned from his first African safari, when he was at the height of his literary and worldly success. Yet its central character is a wealthy writer on safari who is a failure. The gangrene in his leg forces him to admit that he has frittered away his literary talent on a life of luxury and will now never produce anything enduring, any writing with the radiance of the snows at the summit of nearby Mount Kilimanjaro. Despite his own undoubted achievements as a writer, which in 1954 won him the Nobel prize for literature, Hemingway put himself and his fears for the future deeply into this mid-life story. And it does indeed appear to have foreshadowed his literary decline in the 1940s and 1950s, and his subsequent suicide.
All this is familiar to readers of Hemingway. Not so well known is that his love affair with Africa began when he was a child in Illinois and lasted right up to his death. As a boy he was thrilled by Theodore Roosevelt's African safari and books like The Man-Eaters of Tsavo; in his twenties, his first professional book review was of a French novel about Africa by a black writer; his first safari produced a major book, Green Hills of Africa, while his second safari twenty years later led to a sprawling "African Journal", published posthumously as True at First Light; and this is not to mention some excellent shorter pieces of fiction and non-fiction with an African theme, including the two celebrated short stories, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber". Even though he almost died at the end of his second safari in a plane crash which left his health in a parlous state, still he wanted to return to Africa for a third safari. Clearly Africa bewitched Hemingway.
Christopher Ondaatje's Hemingway in Africa investigates this fascination with a charming mixture of perceptive analysis of Hemingway's African writings and personal insight into the mind of a complex and driven individual whom Ondaatje both admires and deplores. While others have written about Hemingway and Africa, Ondaatje is the first to pursue Hemingway in Africa, by following in his footsteps on his two safaris in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, as he did in a previous book Journey to the Source of the Nile which followed the great Victorian explorers of east Africa. Ondaatje's own journey through the post-colonial Africa of our time is interwoven with Hemingway's imperial progress; and the one intriguingly illuminates the other. As he remarks of Hemingway: "Certainly he was no explorer, not a man like Livingstone or Burton always looking for new discoveries, usually in uncharted territory, and motivated by a certain necessary humility. Yet he was more than a mere adventurer. As a writer about Africa, I think Hemingway deserves to be called an explorer, even if he was only an adventurer in his travels and personal life on safari."
Both hunter and quarry are men of action and affairs, successful risk-takers in their chosen fields. But both are also romantics. The tension between realism and romance, which drives both worldly and artistic achievement, makes Hemingway in Africa an absorbing read as well as a significant contribution to Hemingway studies.

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