50 years after Hemingway's Death Establishment Ostracizes Political Fiction
In 1996 in Cojimar, just outside Havana, I met old boy – Manolin! Of course in real life his name was not Manolin and honestly I forgot his real name, but it was the very same boy who ages ago went with old man Santiago through the epic battle against a giant marlin in one of the greatest books written by Ernest Hemingway – “The Old Man And The Sea.”
By the time we met, the ‘boy’ Manolin must have been in his late 70’s or 80’s and moderately pissed drunk. I arrived at the port with my colleagues from Asiahi Shimbun – one of the biggest newspapers in Japan and the world. We were also on our epic mission. The Peruvian Marxist guerilla movement – MRTA – took hostages at Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima, Peru, and we were trying to put the whole story into perspective, interviewing Che Guevara’s relatives in Buenos Aires, judges in Montevideo, businesspeople who had been once kidnapped by the MRTA in Bolivia.
What brought us to Cuba were rumors that Peruvian dictator Alberto Fujimori was trying to convince the Cuban government to put pressure on MRTA to release hostages seeking asylum on the island. If there were any negotiations, they never accomplished anything and on 22 April 2007, Peruvian security forces backed by the United States eventually slaughtered all combatants, including one pregnant girl.
But that happened later, weeks after we entered the pub near the marina and found that the lonely man sitting at a wooden table by the window was Manolin who inspired, decades earlier, Ernest Hemingway and his unforgettable novel.
My Japanese team consisted of hardened intellectuals, including one former concert violinist. There was no doubt that the story of Hemingway’s ‘boy’ had to be told. But before that, or more precisely – during the process of shaping the story – we followed in the footsteps of the great master of prose and got roaring drunk.
Close to midnight, one of the Japanese reporters uttered essential question: “Manolin-san, who was the most beloved foreigner in Cuba: Che Guevara or Hemingway?”
Manolin wiped off the beer foam from his lips and gave it a long thought: “Hemingway!” He said.
“Hemingway? Cubans love Hemingway more than ‘Che’?”
“The foreigner most beloved by Cubans is Hemingway”, he insisted, banging his glass against the table. “Because to us, Che was Cubano!”
Hemingway’s love for Cuba is well documented and so is Cuba’s obsession with Hemingway. What is also known is that he donated most of his funds from Nobel Price he was awarded in 1954 to Cuban people and he was supporting both the struggle for social justice and later Cuban revolution itself.
Besieged by media in 1960, he listened for a while to slanders against Cuba, then replied: “Have you finished, gentlemen? I believe that everything is quiet right over there. People of honor believe in the Cuban Revolution!” Before his death he donated his house, his library, and the objects that he kept there to revolutionary Cuba.
Naturally in the United States those grand gestures did not go down well. And his statements like: “There is nothing wrong with Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin that a .577 solid would not cure" did not help his popularity in the establishment circles.
The FBI tailed Hemingway, he was harassed and until now there are many unanswered questions regarding his death. Some suggest that his 1960 medical treatment was actually supervised by the government authorities and that he was given excessive dozes of electric shocks that destroyed his memory and drove him to suicide.
A.E. Hotchner, a friend of Hemingway’s wrote: “Decades later, in response to a Freedom of Information petition, the FBI released its Hemingway file. It revealed that beginning in the 1940s J. Edgar Hoover had placed Ernest under surveillance because he was suspicious of Ernest’s activities in Cuba. Over the following years, agents filed reports on him and tapped his phones. The surveillance continued all through his confinement at St. Mary’s Hospital.”
In 1950’s and 1960’s, the Western ideologists backed by propaganda machine were busy influencing art and literary scene in North America and Europe – trying desperately to ‘depoliticize it’, turning it to mass-produced benign entertainment (Proof being the May 27, 2008 spectacular confession of Mr. Matthiessen that he "invented The Paris Review as cover" for his CIA activities. Similar approach could be detected in present activities of several major European cultural institutions operating all over the world: they are ‘funding’ young talented artists and writers from developing world in order to silence them politically).
Hemingway – staunch political novelist – was one of the few great North American writers who had been resisting the trend, becoming an embarrassment to the establishment as his work and his stands were becoming increasingly political, popular and known all over the world. He might not been a socialist realist, but was both ‘socialist’ and ‘realist’ in his countless works.
After Hemingway’s death, enormous campaign began: campaign to reduce him to a ‘macho drunkard’, a babbling and stumbling globetrotter who needed at least one new wife for each major novel.
In an attempt to reduce his influence, books and articles have been produced atin industrial quantity, like the one written by Op-Ed columnist Maureen Dowd published by The New York Times on October 15, 2011 under the title “A Farewell to Macho”:
“No woman wants to be a Hemingway heroine who totally submerges her identity to her lover. As Catherine Barkley said in ‘A Farewell To Arms,’ ‘I want you so much I want to be you too.’ We’d much rather be dressed in floaty silk, sipping Champagne on Jay Gatsby’s terrace.”
But Diliberto says women are wrong to think Hemingway has nothing to offer them. Especially now that women are rising and men are declining, as The Atlantic has noted in two cover stories, women can feel secure enough to “relax and enjoy him,” as Diliberto puts it.”
Ms. Maureen Dowd could have preferred to be dressed in floaty silk, but most of the women Hemingway had been writing about had far more urgent, one would say existential issues to deal with. In “To Have and To Have Not”, and especially in a monumental work of fiction and profound humanism “For Whom The Bell Tolls”.
It is possible that in Ms. Dowd’s world, men do the dishes and lit up candles before each and every dinner and women are treated like princesses. But in the world of For Whom The Bell Tolls, head of protagonist – Maria - had been shaved; she had been stripped naked and then gang-raped by the Spanish fascists. And her lover - her love - Robert Jordan, young American teacher was in the ranks of international brigades, fighting fascism, dying at the end. And he was ready to die not because he was macho but simply because that’s what some men and some women feel obliged to do, or used to feel obliged to do: fighting till the end beastly and merciless forces of colonialism, neo-colonialism, fascism or all of them combined.
I am also wondering how many of those politically correct men of today would dare to fall in love with a woman who was just recently ravished, devastated, worst than murdered! To most of them she would be ‘too complex’, not fitting to what is stereotypically seen as attractive, she would be even frightening.
Robert Jordan’s choices are absolutely opposite of those that would be conducted by machismo – they are doubtlessly humbling, deeply moving and brave choices: the choice to love Maria and the choice to fight and to die for Republican Spain. And Robert Jordan is the male protagonist of the greatest novel Ernest Hemingway ever wrote.
In reality Hemingway – one the masters of the short story form – that on par with Anton Chekhov and Guy de Maupassant (although it is rare these days to read such description) – was galaxies away from machismo in his work, showing deepest respect for and compassion with his female characters. One only has to read Hills Like White Elephants or some of his other legendary short stories.
One should be aware of one interesting fact: in all that anti-Hemingway barrage there is hardly any mentioning of his greatest works! The ones he wrote and approved of. What is discussed is his latest stuff, books that were reconstructed from his notes by his family and some second-rate writers: books he would never consider fit for publishing; The Garden of Eden (posthumously edited and published in 1986) or Truth At First Light (constructed in 1999 from his notes from African journeys, incomparably weaker than his major African works of fiction like The Snows Of Kilimanjaro and non-fiction Green Hills of Africa).
Dozens of biographies are being published, most of them trying to boost the egos of biographers: to show for instance how close they were to Hemingway and how many things about him they knew that nobody else did. Most of it is cheap ‘me-me-me’ blabbing of mediocrities that were sharing once in a while admitted to ‘Papa’s’ living rooms, bars and ship decks. Almost none of these biographies speak about Hemingway’s deep humanism, determined anti-fascism and sympathy for Marxism. Example of that is the latest book: “Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved In Life, and Lost, 1934-1961”.
Then dozens of articles in the establishment media, like that recently published by The Economist, offer reviews on such biographies, feeding the vicious circle.
At the end, the great work is forgotten or discounted. And the men who fought Nazis by chasing their subs, covered Spanish Civil Way, supported Cuban revolution and was badly injured in the WWI is discounted as some whispering playboy and yes, embodiment of macho!
His adversaries pick up always the same topics: sexuality, machismo, hunting, and bullfights, nothing to do with the essence of his work.
The Economist from October 15, 2011, reviewing Hendrickson’s book: “Hemingway’s fiction is sometimes said to express the anxiety of American men about their masculinity… The idea that he-man might actually have been gay… the possibility of a certain amount of sexual role-playing between Hemingway and his wives…”
But then The Economist admits: “…Obsessive biographical speculation has managed to obscure Hemingway’s considerable literary achievemen…”
Strangely, the same nonsense paid for by who-knows-whom had been spreading for decades about Fidel Castro and other leaders hated by the New World Order. Cross-dressing is the favorite subject. I personally knew one exiled Cuban writer living in New York who invented entire story about a whorehouse in Havana specializing in cross-dressing. She made claim that Fidel frequented it before the revolution. The novel was well funded, with big advance, but it was farce and it never inspired critics or wide public.
Ernest Hemingway, together with other great American writers like Richard Wright (Native Son) and Baldwin (Foreign Country), were the main cause why I, after long soul-searching in early 1990’s finally decided to apply for the United States citizenship. There was so much courage, so much strength and internationalism in American prose, compared to cynical self-righteousness and provincial intellectualism of European authors.
The neo-con propaganda perfected itself; it has been unleashing its mighty flow of poisonous streams of lies and half-truths against anything and anybody that has dared to stand on its way: from Asian and Latin American alternative political and socio-economic systems to those few thinkers who dare to stand tall and put the truth above personal gain and career; those contemporary ones and those who speak to us from the past. Hemingway, it goes without saying, is one of them.
In July 2011 I began editing with my cohort and producer – Scott Erlinder – huge documentary film on Rwandan regime and on plunder of natural resources in Congo/DRC. My trip to Chicago included, naturally, visits to a few jazz clubs, to the first studios where Charlie Chaplin had been making his films, as well as to Oak Park – a suburb where Hemingway was born.
In the Museum, I was hit by the obvious: while Hemingway’s fishing, involvement in bullfighting and other ‘vices’ were well documented, while there were dozens of photographs of ‘his women’, I found almost nothing related to Cuba. I went to a lady who appeared to be in charge of the place:
“You know he loved Cuba?”
She made a neutral sound.
“And you know that he dedicated Nobel Price money to Cuban revolutionary state?”
She stopped making noises and began concentrating. She gave me that look of ‘the enemy never sleeps’ or ‘are you going to give me more of your filthy commie tricks?’
“So why there is almost nothing related to Cuba in this museum?” I asked.
Very slowly she replied: “Maybe you should go and ask Cuban government why don’t they send us some donation?”
I told her I would and bought few postcards of Hemmingway with his cat.
I am not sure whether it made old boy Manolin actually macho, but when we were parting he was drunk. Before I walked through the door, he confessed: “If someone insults Hemingway, I will smash his skull with this beer bottle.” I actually thought that was damn good idea. We parted amicably, waving empty bottles towards the darkness of Cojimar, frightening away prospective Hemingway’s enemies.
It accrued to me that night, that Manolin should be allowed to take his well-deserved rest and that it was actually up to us - the writers – not to an old man from Cajimar in Cuba to protect the legacy of one of the greatest American men of letters. The regime and its propaganda managed to pervert the way we see the world, now it was relentlessly working on shaping the way we see our own culture.
Instead of Hemingway the genius – tremendous novelist, a man of principles and fighter against fascism - we are offered endless sexual caricatures followed by derogatory text in countless books and articles.
It is time to throw all that low quality intellectual garbage where it belongs - to a waste bin - and return to what really matters: to Hemingway’s great novels and short stories.
I am therefore sending farewell to Maureen Dowd, to her imaginary silk and to Great Gatsby whom I always, maybe unfairly, saw as self-centered brag. Farewell to all those who are promoting shallowness as virtue, trying to defame all that is truly extraordinary. Hemingway knew and he wrote many times about the fact that for him work was all that matters; the rest was his own damn life that he was going to live however and wherever he wanted. And the work he left behind is phenomenal!