Green Hills of Africa has aged as gracefully as its diabetic, alcoholic, suicidal author did. Firstly, it’s all about big game hunting: Hemingway and his wife and his mates tramp around Africa blowing away lions, rhinos, cheetahs and anything else that moves, presumably so the animal’s dismembered body parts can make a nice conversation piece in their living rooms.
Secondly, it’s all about manly men doing manly men things, with the only significant female character being Hemingway’s wife, Pauline Marie Pfeiffer, referred to as P.O.M. (don’t ask me to explain the acronym). And while she is tenacious – tenacious enough, in fact, to make old Papa liken her to a “terrier”, which she understandably objects to – she is usually relegated to the role of cheer squad in Hemingway’s war against African Bambi’s mother.
And thirdly, Hemingway’s use of native trackers and porters to carry his trophies and eskies of beer has more than a whiff of colonialism and is the kind of unequal economic relationship that makes people very, very uncomfortable nowadays.
But to hell with all of that. Green Hills of Africa proves that a good author can make any subject interesting, even one that you previously had an aversion to. It’s also a memoir, meaning that it’s full of insights into man himself that Hemingway tragics like me can slaver over.
It also contains some of his most famous quotes on writing, the best of which I’ve included below, because I love them:
“The way to hunt is for as long as you live against as long as there is you and colors and canvas, and to write as long as you can live and there is pencil and paper or ink or any machine to do it with, or anything you care to write with, and you feel a fool, and you are a fool, to do it any other way.”
Hemingway on his life:
““I have a good life but I must write because if I do not write a certain amount I do not enjoy the rest of my life.”
“And what do you want?”
“To write as well as I can and learn as I go along. At the same time I have my life which I enjoy and which is a damned good life.””
And on what is necessary to make a good writer:
“First, there must be talent, much talent. Talent such as Kipling had. Then there must be discipline. The discipline of Flaubert. Then there must be the conception of what it can be and absolute conscience as unchanging as the standard meter in Paris, to prevent faking. Then the writer must be intelligent and disinterested and above all he must survive. Try to get all these in one person and have him come through all the influences that press on a writer. The hardest thing, because time is so short, is for him to survive and get his work done.”
Hemingway, as he depicts himself, was something of a bastard: short tempered, quick to develop a grudge and a braggart with a tendency for hubris. But he was also constantly self-critical and painfully aware of his flaws, essentially well-intentioned and possessed of a great passion for life and the beauty of nature.
And, I’m not sure if you’ve heard this, but he was a hell of a writer. The book is essentially all about hunting, with the only plot point being the pursuit of a particular type of antelope, the kudu. In lesser writer’s hands, this subject would be as dull as dishwater, but Hemingway manages to convey the artfulness of it: the need for calm, steady nerves when taking a shot; the tracking of blood spores; the awareness of the direction of the wind to hide one’s scent; the importance of killing an animal cleanly, both for one’s pride and to minimise its suffering. And there are rules to the sport that save it from barbarity: the quotas on hunting licenses; the taboo against shooting mothers and calves.
He also injects drama into the plot by conveying the competitiveness and camaraderie in his hunting party, and their reliance and resentment for the native guides. And by communicating just how important the hunt is to him, and tying it into his philosophy on life, he makes what is essentially a pleasure trip seem epic. You’d need to be a rabid freegan not to share Hemingway’s joy at completing his quest, so beautifully is it depicted.
There’s an awareness, but not anxiety, of the privilege of his position that, while not excusing his attitudes, make them more palatable for a modern audience. Late in the book, he justifies his hunting as a drop in the ocean of the daily slaughter that takes place in the animal world, which may have been a justified opinion before we became aware of the impact of hunting and habitat destruction.
It is difficult to say if Hemingway and his party exploit the natives. Certainly, they expect to be waited on hand and foot, to have their luxuries like beer and whiskey which have to be carried by porters. Hemingway develops a particularly ugly grudge against a guide, who the text doesn’t grant a real name but is nicknamed Garrick for his theatricality, who he proceeds to threaten and considers shooting. But there is also a camaraderie between Hemingway and other African characters that reminds you that, even in unequal relationships that are frowned about nowadays, there is an emotional reality that cannot be dismissed.
Recommended for Hemingway fans, and everyone else who can put aside their prejudices for damned good writing.