It’s difficult, in 2017, to stomach a book about the simple pleasures of big game hunting in Africa written from an only vaguely self-aware post-colonial perspective. Yet that is essentially what this book is. The up’s and downs of one of the Hemingway’s big game trophy hunts in Africa in the early 1930’s. This is considered Hemingway’s second non-fiction book, the first being Death in the Afternoon which is about bullfighting. I haven’t read Death in the Afternoon. I wouldn’t rush to read it above the many other books stacking up on my shelf. I didn’t mind the descriptions of bull fighting in The Sun Also Rises as they added an interesting backdrop to the character drama. But that was a work of fiction whereby the plot necessitated that many other acts of writing had to be committed other than just a dissection of the art and skill Hemingway found in the sport of fighting bulls.
This then forms part of the problem with this novel. It is non-fiction. The writing is plain. Even for Hemingway. Yet the book is also very similar to his fiction work. Just as The Sun also Rises and A Farewell to Arms felt like fictionalised truth this novel feels like reverse situation and another potential novel that has not been allowed to float off into the freedom of fiction and is instead steadfastly moored in real life events and very much based upon description and dissection of stalking, killing and skinning rhinos, kudu, lions and sable.
I was willing to find some sort of macabre appeal in the content or grant some sort of romantic conceit based upon Hemingway’s passion for and connection to hunting. It’s hard though when he again and again describes the crack of bullets against various bones and seems almost removed from the actual hunting and still, as in his fiction, worried more about his interactions with his fellow hunters. As a result, the slaughter of various animals very often seems both joyless and pointless.
The asides are the real value of this book. Hemingway’s views on literature and fellow modernist authors are particularly interesting including his various encounters with James Joyce. Similarly, Hemingway’s struggles with envy, jealousy and his views of his fellow hunters and guides provide a sort of subplot and, ultimately, Hemingway does what Hemingway does best by providing, in the conclusion to the book, a simple little poetic twist doesn’t necessarily redeem the writing but which nonetheless hints at what this book could have been had it been more focused upon acting as a work of fiction. And perhaps this forms part of the books value also. A two-fold insight into who Hemingway was or at least how he sought to portray himself and also in how his writing operated and the indecision and doubt that paradoxically seemed to operate side by side with bravado and ultra-confidence.
This 1990 edition has a throwaway cover but does include some nice woodcutting style illustrations throughout. Grafton seemed to have done the complete Hemingway in this style with similar covers but of the two other Grafton editions I have only Green Hills of Africa has illustrations.