Green Hills of Africa – Ernest Hemingway

Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway

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.


Spoiler alert! Hemingway with kudu heads. Image courtesy of JFK Library via Wikipedia.

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.


6 Responses to Green Hills of Africa – Ernest Hemingway

  1. Sarah says:

    Nice post! After your first few paragraphs I wouldn’t have touched this book with a barge pole, but you turn it round spectacularly, in a similar manner to Hemingway I suppose.

    I am ashamed to admit that I haven’t read any Hemingway, although I keep eyeing up For Whom the Bell Tolls. It is my husband who is the big Hemingway fan in our household. I shall recommend Green Hills of Africa to him and then it will be on the shelf when I’m ready for it!

  2. Hemingway worked as a journalist in his early career. He knew how to write non-fiction and how to tell a story. So, he takes a working vacation and goes on Safari. A safari was something he’s never done before and won’t again until the fifties. Of course he wants to experience it himself.
    He basically took a magazine piece that would be about hunting in Africa for the first time that would have been published in a sports journal and he made it a non-fiction novel. Something T.C. said he invented thirty years later with “In Cold Blood”.

    Also, when you read the book, you’ll notice the characters mentioned are multi-national and diverse as they come, with Muslims, East Indians, Austrian, English, various natives and Americans crossing paths. Which gives some insight to the complexity of the problems of African politics which are an on going problem.

    I think it’s notable that the natives tracking and doing the gun bearing are an essential part of the hunting team. The reason Hemingway gave them such a presence in the book and how he felt towards them was from the point of view of a client depending on them to do what they were paid to do. Hemingway being the person he was, wrote what his feelings were about that. Hemingway was never an easy person and his expectations are high of those performing. He judged their skill the same way as he would judge a boxer or a bull fighter. He would tell you what he saw in the man.

    It’s a great book for those interested in the history of Africa and big game hunting with Hemingway’s perspective and insight. It’s a great read. I don’t know how much of a broad appeal it has.
    Also, he did write a short story called “Snows of Kilimanjaro” from the same trip. Reading the two of them is a very interesting study how Hemingway approached these very different works from this one Africa safari and shows the depth of experience he got from living.

    • Welcome. Thanks for the different perspective. I enjoyed your point about Hemingway judging people’s skill the same way he would a boxer, etc. He does have a critical eye and appreciation for a finely honed physical craft.

  3. Johnny G says:

    great summary and analasys. Fun fact: Hemingway went to my high school, Oak Park River Forest

  4. Ted Wall says:

    Excellent summary and thoughtful analysis. I would add that Hemingway loved all forms of expertise and celebrated those who had the talent, discipline and luck to exhibit it, no matter the domain.

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