This article originally appeared on Lit To Lens on Sept. 23, 2016.
Title: The Old Man and the Sea
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Year Of Publication: 1951
Genre: Fiction, Novella
Great fishing stories are borne from extreme patience, and a little bit of luck.
Santiago, the main character in Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novella, is certainly not lucky. In fact, he’s viewed as salao, the worst form of unlucky. When we first meet him it’s been more than 80 days since the fisherman has even caught a fish and things are so bad for him that the parents of his apprentice, Manolin, won’t let their son near Santiago.
Of course, Manolin continues to hang around Santiago and helps him prepare to fish each morning. They talk of fishing, the future, and Joe DiMaggio. On the morning of Santiago’s 85th fishless morning he feels good.
It’s not long after he shoves off that he hooks what he believes to be a marlin, and it’s a big one. So large that he can’t quite pull it in-and instead rides it further and further out into the ocean (not unlike a Nantucket Sleigh Ride for those familiar with In The Heart Of The Sea). What follows is a struggle between man and nature, between luck and misfortune.
He’s able to pull the fish close and realizes just how stunningly large it is. It won’t fit in his boat. He has to latch it alongside his skiff to get it back to the mainland. Unfortunately to get the fish to this point he’s had to stab it with his harpoon. The marlin’s blood attracts visitors, which turn out to be sharks, and the fish doesn’t make it back to land.
Well, it does. Just without any meat left on its bones. After days alone at sea, Santiago lands with just fish head and tail connected by a fleshless vertebrae. He leaves it for the rest of the town to find and instead sleeps. When he wakes, he and Manolin make plans to fish together.
It’s a helluva yarn, something that you’d like to think Hemingway was once told over many daiquiris at La Floridita. That he’s able to keep his readers interested for one hundred pages simply with the inner machinations with a thoughtful but self-doubting fisherman is nothing short of perfection in a piece of writing.
As for where this holds a spot in the pantheon of Hemingway: it’s better than any of the novels but not quite at the same level as some of his short stuff- “Hills Like White Elephants,” “Up In Michigan,” and “Big Two-Hearted River” come to mind. Still, it demands your time.