The Old Man and the Sea

What a way to start. Hemmingway is really off the topic. But here I go. Baseball has been very very good to me. Hemmingway writes a story of Santiago in Cuba, an old fisherman with a young friend named Manolin who both loved baseball. I marvel at the superstition of baseball players in general, their routines often including things like eating the exact same thing for breakfast during a winning streak.

Santiago, an old man, a fisherman, was on a losing streak. He had gone 84 days without catching a fish. He is so unlucky that Manolin’s parents have forbidden them from fishing together instead insisting that Manolin fish with successful fishermen. But Manolin loved to sit with Santiago and talk about baseball and Joe DiMaggio, however Santiago must go out alone on that 85th day.

The Old Man and the Sea quickly focuses on the fight between Santiago, an old, experienced fisherman and a giant marlin that was to be the largest catch of his life. Santiago has traveled alone far into the Gulf of Mexico from his native Cuban shores to fish. His lines set around noon, a fish takes his bait. Santiago struggles and imagines he has a giant Marlin, unable to land the fish. For two days and two nights the giant fish pulls his skiff about the giant Gulf straining the old man and his fishing lines. The worse for wear, Santiago’s thoughts and dreams constantly turn to baseball and Joe DiMaggio.

Like a worthy adversary in a seven game series, Santiago respects the fish and asks himself when strength is needed to continue the fight, ‘What would Joe DiMaggio do?”. Finally the big fish is worn and beaten and a delirious Santiago is able on the third day of battle to lash the fish to the side of his boat and head home. But the fisherman had stabbed the fish, and now blood is attracting sharks.

“What would Joe DiMaggio do?”. Santiago wonders how much money he will make at the market with such a large fish. And how many people will it feed? The first shark strikes and Santiago kills it with his harpoon only to be attacked by another. The fisherman loses his harpoon in battle only to fashion another from a spare oar and his knife. But the sharks will not relent, and only by the grace of some unseen hand does Santiago find his beach without capsizing, exhausted but not beaten, for the mighty fish is still strapped to his skiff.

First placing the mast and sail, priceless tools of his fishing trade on his shoulder, Santiago struggles to his shack, but falls victim to his fatigue and pain. He sits for a moment only to fall on his back and surrender to a deep slumber, his first real rest in 72 hours. After his stoic battle, like an entire world series, fought by one man, he had left his fish strapped to the boat, scarcely pulled from the waters edge.

Fishermen gathered in the morning light to that waters edge and saw a mighty skeleton of a recently harvested marlin strapped to the side of a skiff. One measures the remains, 18 feet, as long as the small boat, and tourists at a nearby cafe exclaim that a shark was caught. Word reaches Manolin who worries that Santiago has died in the struggle. Upon finding him sleeping Manolin cries, and fetches newspapers and coffee, baseball scores you know. He wakens his old friend and they promise to fish together once again. Later, Santiago sleeps again and dreams of younger days but not of the giant marlin and sharks but of lions on an African beach.

Hemmingway was living in Cuba at the time, and doubtless immersed in the culture of the fisherman, the cafes on the beach, and the African roots of so many locals. Written in 1951, Hemmingway preceded the revolution that has destroyed what once was a thriving tourism and manufacturing economy, heavily unionized, that afforded a middle class with higher standards of living than many European countries of the time. Hemmingway in no way saw Castro’s class envy battle against the power companies, similar to FDR’s rhetoric in the United States in the 1930’s that decreased the number of domestic power companies from more than 200 to less than 30 in just a few years. (Thanks to the lack of competition, we have an outdated grid and New York and Illinois monopolies charge way too much, while California languishes in brownouts)
But on a literary level, while many critics stopped with the rich allegory to baseball and heroes that formed the backbone of Santiago’s relationship with the young boy, Hemmingway himself and critics with more insightful examinations found parallels to biblical lessons, a third level that fills the readers head with rich rewards that will satisfy our souls far beyond the time we take to devour the book.

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