Monday, May 10, 2010

Hemingway in Africa: The Last Safari by Christopher Ondaatje

Are the British fascinated by American author Ernest Hemingway? In one of his popular travel adventures, Michael Palin followed the Hemingway trail through Chicago, Paris, East Africa, Key West, Cuba, and finally to Idaho. With similar intent, Sir Christopher Ondaatje studied Hemingway's two African safaris, reading the books, and visiting Hemingway sites in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. The result is Hemingway in Africa: The Last Safari, his stylishly illustrated travel adventure/literary biography.

Am I fascinated by Hemingway? No, but I do like to look at almost any book about East Africa. I intended to just look at the pictures and check whether the book worked as a biography. Seeing that two trips that my family took to Kenya and Tanzania crossed the Hemingway trail (of which I was never aware), I ended up reading the book. I realized that we followed almost exactly the same road between Nairobi and Arusha. Like Hemingway, we stood on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater, crossed the Serengeti plains, and saw elephants in Tsavo. We slept in tents and visited a Masai village. Common experience drew me in. We did not, however, shoot anything. Neither did Ondaatje.

In one trip, Ondaatje tried to recreate Hemingway's two extended stays in East Africa. Hemingway's first was in 1933 and resulted in his critically disappointing Green Hills of Africa. It also gave him the background he needed for the acclaimed short stories "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber." He shot a lot of animals, drank a lot of beer and whisky, and, not very successfully, tried to find his better self. Twenty years later, he returned with less interest in killing and more with escaping from his increasing unsatisfactory life. His account of this safari was published long after his death as True at First Light. In both books Hemingway pontificates about writing and being a man. Neither is particularly honest. Ondaatje judges the first to be better than most critics at the time thought, but he argues that Hemingway would never have let True at First Light publish in such unfinished form.

Ondaatje mixed many of his own contemporary photos with historical shots of Hemingway and late colonial East Africa. These tell more about the land than his travel comments, as the text seems to be about eighty percent about Hemingway's life and writings. In the end, Ondaatje seems to learn more about and to sympathize with Hemingway, but he does not ever claim to understand or condone the troubled man. His book will satisfy those with biographical interest more than travel readers.

Ondaatje, Christopher. Hemingway in Africa: The Last Safari. Overlook Press, 2003. ISBN 1585675393.

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