I thought that this was a very opaque read. Hemingway, as a general trend, seems to take a pleasure in rubbing your nose in the experiences that you lI thought that this was a very opaque read. Hemingway, as a general trend, seems to take a pleasure in rubbing your nose in the experiences that you lack, and this is what is part of his unique attraction. Even in this book, only the animal lovers could fail to be seduced by the romance of hunting in the african lands barely touched by humans. The problems, for me, concerned Hemingway's abandonment of story.
The book is in the same biographical vein as A Moveable Feast, but whereas that book took a look at historically interesting people and occasionally tried to explain the context of those times, The Green Hills of Africa doesn't condescend to situate any of the characters in the reader's mind. None of the characters are introduced in the traditional way; we learn that there are such people called "Pop" and "P.O.M." that are in the vicinity of Hemingway along the way, but why there are in his vicinity has to be deduced.
Not the merest helping hand, such as "P.O.M., my wife" is given, even as a courtesy. The fact that P.O.M.'s identity is hidden behind initials is illustrative of the opaque attitude of Hemingway towards his readers here.
At moments you feel as if the book could have been made more engaging for the general (ignorant) reader, such as more fanciful descriptions of the landscape, or the abrupt yet provocative reflections on questions of literary greatness... but these are in any case few and far between (even in a short book), and the latter can only be counted as interesting insights into Hemingway the man - they are not in themselves beautiful to read. In the end, then, this is a book which deliberately throws you only a moving train with no idea where you're going or where you've come from... you are in company with people whose associations are either intimate, servant-master, friendly or of rivals... yet you cannot see their faces clearly or easily guess from the dialogue what these are (everyone has a very clipped, idiomatic way of talking). The scenery is sometimes nice but often monotonous, and you feel like if you had lived a little more and lived in their shoes you could enjoy it a lot more....more
This is a story of a band of killers who recover the scalps of indians by comission. The main character is something of a blank slate, other than hisThis is a story of a band of killers who recover the scalps of indians by comission. The main character is something of a blank slate, other than his instinctual aggression and hard-heartedness. The most memorable character is Judge Holden, who is introduced to us during an episode in which he sets a mob against an innocent man for the crime of child molestation, only to reveal that he did it as a joke. When we meet the character again we're prepared to find out what a world is like run by such "judges" with a contempt for "justice" other than nature's stark laws of deviousness and power.
The novel is extremely visceral in tone, casting doubt on any notion that peace can exist outside of civilized rule and order. Perhpas appropriately, it does not have much of a sense of progression in the narrative.
The number of characters is immense and it is difficult to identify much with any individual names: they are, with few exceptions, faceless hired killers. In this ways and in others, including the quality of the language, it is similar to Moby Dick: it is a sometimes hellish, sometimes blackly comic sequence of anedcotes from the outskirts of civilisation. The list of subtitles that begin each chapter (some subtitles referring to events that only last a couple of paragraphs) give an impression of the density and relentlessness of events without any sense of linear progression.
One particularly memorable aspect of its style is the way in which the environments are described. "Harsh" hardly begins to describe it. There characters always seem to be surrounded by surfaces akin to molten lava or razor blades; the landscape doesn't seem so much like a endless arena for adventure so much as a constantly wearing, grinding hazard:
The expriest: The malpais. It was a maze. Ye'd run out upon a little promontory and ye'd be balked about by the steep crevasses, you wouldnt dare to jump them. Sharp black glass the edges and sharp the flinty rocks below. We led the horses with every care and still they were bleedin about hteir hooves. Our boots was cut to pieces. Clamberin over those old caved and rimpled plates you could see well enough how things had gone in that place, rocks melted and set up all wrinkled like a pudding, the earth stove through the molten core of her. When for augh any man knows lies the locality of hell. For the earth is a glove in the void and truth. There's no up nor down to it and there's men in this company besides myself seen little cloven hoofprints in the stone clever as a little doe in her going but what little doe ever trod melted rock? I'd not go behind scripture but it may be that there has been sinners so notorious evil that the fires coughed em up again and I could well see in the long ago how it was little devils with their pitchforks had traversed that firey vomit for to salvage back those souls that had by misadventure been spewed up from their damnation onto the outer shelves of the world. Aye. It's a notion, no more. But someplace in the scheme of things this world must touch the other. And somthin put them little hooflet markings in the lava flow for I seen then there myself. p.105
The most directly stated theme is that of war. The philosophy of Judge Holden is crytpically revealed in bits and pieces, and seems to make up a coherence whole. It seems that he views the prohibition of cruelty and murder as an imposition of narrowly human desires for permanence and guarantees: in his view, he accepts the world as it really is - that life is a battle with no end:
It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practioner. This is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way. p.197
The judge is also an intellectual with knowledge of several languages and freakish vocabulary. In this regard (and hopefully only this regard) he represents the author whose style is similar to Hemingway in its simulataneous obscurity of lexicon and brusque directness of sentence construction. Like Hemingway, the McCarthy seems to love confronting the reader with terms that they haven't heard of, not because they are pretentious or difficult, but only because they reference ways of living that they haven't tried. In this passage, McCarthy also defends precision and economy of language, and subtly refutes that writerly use of rare words is some mere decorative choice:
Judge: Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth. Toadvine: What's a suzerain? A keeper. A Keeper or overlord. Why not say keeper then? Because he is a special kind of keeper. A suzerain rules even when there are other rulers. His authority countermands local judgements. Toadvine spat. p.160
The book is difficult. Firstly, similar to Conrad and Faulkner, the cast is simply too large to quietly assimilate. Be prepared for a lot of flipping back. Secondly, like Melville, the narrative structure is only nominally there, and most of the book is like a list of events, after the striking opening and the return to conventional narrative in the denoument. The value of the writing is not in its narrative power (other books by the same author do however show this) but in the display of virtuosity and bleak human insight it offers....more
This book likes to take you out of your comfort zone with specialist terminology and Spanish words. Some parts read almost like an inter-language. It's difficult, and I would have probably preferred an easier read, but at the same time I'm learning, so whatever. Good book: very very American indeed....more