The Bookworm: Green Hills of Africa

Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway. 304 pages. Scribner. 1935.

A continent ages quickly once we come. The natives live in harmony with it. But the foreigner destroys, cuts down the trees, drains the water, so that the water supply is altered and in a short time the soil, once the sod is turned under, is cropped out and, next, it starts to blow away as it has blown away in every old country and as I had seen it start blowing in Canada. The earth gets tired of being exploited.

Next Tuesday is César Chávez Day, but today is when state workers in California observed the holiday. I got the day off and spent a sunny, warm, SoCal day writing and reading on the beach. Not everyone gets the day off (in the afternoon on my way to BevMo! I noticed yellow buses, crossing guards, and groups of kids walking home from school) so only a handful of tourists, those of us who have the holiday, and the beach bums were on the sand.

Needless to say, I polished off Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa. Yes, more Hemingway.

Let’s talk ol’ Hem, shall we? I wanted to write about this with A Moveable Feast but it just wasn’t working.

A friend of mine once told me he read Hemingway and couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to make him understand, wanted him to start making a fuss, but knew it was probably impossible given his reading tastes.

I understand Hemingway is not for everyone; each of us have our own preferences and likings. So for those of you who don’t understand here’s what all the fuss is about, bluntly: Hemingway is a god.

Somewhere on all recent editions of his books is this biographical quickie: “Ernest Hemingway did more to change the style of English prose than any other writer in the twentieth century…” It’s true. Although Sherwood Anderson came before him, Hemingway is literature’s master minimalist.

His writing is beautifully terse, evocative, and pinpoint accurate. Everything that needs to be there is there, and everything that doesn’t belong is excluded. It’s inspiring, instructive, and way too influential. It’s hard for American writers, especially men, to avoid Hemingway. It’s hard not to idolize him, deify him (as above), or copy him. (Basically, I’m not saying anything new.)

I first read Hemingway in G-Rod’s US Lit Honors class my junior year of high school. On a central table in the classroom she piled various books we had the choice to read. I browsed the covers and saw Hemingway’s complete short stories. I’d heard of him and chose the book out of curiosity. It floored me. I had never read anything so clear or real. I was only supposed to keep the book for a week or two and read part of the collection, but I kept it for a few months to finish the remaining stories. (G-Rod paid a visit to the Newslab one day and mentioned to me, “You still owe me that Hemingway.”) When I gave it back I bought my own copy, my first Hemingway. When the school was hunkered down in those worthless Work Key exams the next fall, I brought it to read and kill time after finishing each test section. One of our class jocks sat next to me, and when he noticed the book he tapped the cover and said, “Great book. I almost read the whole thing.”

As it does for many, Hemingway’s writing influenced me a lot. Steinbeck turned me on to realism and Hemingway showed me how to write it.

Anyway, back to Green Hills of Africa. This was Hemingway’s first venture into long nonfiction. It’s the account of a hunting safari he took in Tanzania near Lake Manyara in December 1933, the first of two African safaris he took (the other, in Kenya in 1953, is the focus of a posthumorous fictional memoir True at First Light published in 1999).

Beautifully written (of course), Green Hills is Hemingway’s attempt to capture the natural splendor of Africa. The short forward states:

The writer has attempted to write an absolutely true book to see whether the shape of a country and the pattern of a month’s action can, if truly presented, compete with a work of the imagination.

In my opinion it does more than compete: it obliterates anything that can be done with fiction. But, ironically, most fiction is based on real experience. It’s always been my belief you can’t write anything you don’t know, so it seems dubious to pit nonfiction against thinly veiled nonfiction. But ol’ Hem must have felt differently.

Needless to say, much of the book outlines his pursuit of hunting trophies — the head and horns of rhino, kudu, and sable antelope. What else can you expect from a guy who practiced blowing his brains out with an elephant hunting rifle? (He used a shotgun when he actually did it, I think.) To some it may be tedious reading, but I didn’t think so. It not only delivers exciting action, but allows Hemingway to do exactly what he wanted: capture the beauty of Africa.

Here’s a nitpicky personal thing: as with A Moveable Feast, I questioned the accuracy of his memory. Unless Africa made such an impression that the image of each valley, hillside, and open range was burned into his mental retina, I highly doubt Hemingway remembered everything as it was. Likely he kept a journal to jot down the events and images of the trip, but he never mentioned it if he did. Africa impressed and amazed him, so perhaps everything is absolutely true, as the forward says. There’s no doubt he intended it to be. But sometimes I wonder if it’s humanly possible to remember everything that well. If it is, shit… (Right now I’m rewriting an essay and am trying to recall the scenery of a particular lake. It’s hard going.)

New word I learned: kudu. Green Hills is a literary zoo, and I learned about a few new mammals and birds. One of them, the one Hemingway and the trip's other hunter most obsessed over, was kudu. Here’s the link to the Wikipedia entry.

Green Hills of Africa, not A Moveable Feast, is the straw that will break the camel’s back in regards to my bookshelf. There’s no room for it. I have my Hemingway stacked vertically because there’s so much of it, and the stack has reached the top of its partition. Some rearranging and rebuilding is in order.

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