Whenever they give you a book to read in school you know there will be more to the book than just the story in front of you. You know they are trying make you understand that there can be story below the story. Sometimes it works and children can make out the shape of that meaning the way one person points at a cloud and asks if you see the same shape they do. Maybe you can make out the figure in the clouds but its only a shape and a shadow and soon will shift away and be forgotten.
For a person to truly get that moment of intimate understanding, it is necessary for that person to have at least some understanding of what that vague shape could look like in real life.
It would be like me pointing to a cloud and saying. “See it looks just like a Giraffe.” And you saying, “I have never seen a giraffe.” Then I would have to explain what a giraffe looks like and you would nod and say that you see exactly what I see if only to get me to shut up.
When I first read the Old Man and the Sea I was a sophomore in high school. How could I know why that story was so special? How could I understand what Hemingway was trying to say till I had at least glimpsed that great shadow of a fish he was trying to show me.
I am sure anyone reading this will know already that the story is about writing but I just had my first moment with the dead drunk legend and I wanted to share it. If you were a writer and you did not know this then you may steal this moment and this narrative to save you from feeling the idiot the next time someone mentions Hemingway’s greatness and you have nothing to add to the conversation.
The story is so simple, the characters number three if you include the fish but the narrative is strong and the current it takes us on is stronger.
I will not bother with a synopsis of the story but it is simply about an old fisherman who goes to far out to find his catch. He hooks a big idea, he hooks the biggest idea and he is so far out and alone and he must wrestle this story alone in the ocean of his mind. There is no one to help him, land is out of sight and now the story drags him as he hangs on for the life of both him and story.
The Old man must use every trick he has learned to work the idea up and up into something he can even see. There are day’s on end of being dragged out further, the body and mind cramping as he holds fast, the old man slowly subduing the massive fish through force of will and diligence.
You make it back home in the night and leave the mangled fish you loved there on the beach, crawling to your bed with torn back and bleeding hands. In the morning they will see what you had, they will know what a great fish it was but there will be no meat to sell and you will buy your coffee on credit.
Only when you have gone that far out can you even see the outline of what Hemingway is talking about. Its not that you have to have completed this epic journey to understand what he means but you have to at least have been far enough out to know there was danger and to feel that loneliness. To understand that the best you can hope for after you broken yourself bringing this story to life is that the people who see it will know how big it was from tip to tail. Maybe they will get the scale of the beautiful thing you subdued but that will be it, they will never taste it and they will never see it full of color and alive they way you did. If you are lucky there will be the boy, or someone who understands and you will miss them too because you are too far out.
This is what I knew to be the truth of this story. This is the prize that any writer who has ever taken a boat out that far hopes to come home with, the hope that someday, even after you are long dead, that someone will understand what you saw and in the fullness of how you saw it.
I am sure there are lots details that I do not fully understand, the lions on the beach, the birds, the boy and what they all mean. I am sure there is a English professor somewhere who can fill me in.
Hemingway always struck me as a ego maniac who spent his life building a swashbuckling façade, but I appreciate him for this and I was glad I got see his great fish.