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Green Hills of Africa

Green Hills of Africa - Ernest Hemingway description
The subject of the pursuit is the elusive kudu, an animal you must hunt alone, like writers must write alone...

In Hemingway’s experimental work, the Green Hills of Africa, he produces possibly one of the earliest works of creative nonfiction, reveals how the search for good land parallels a writer’s search for good material, and most of all, reveals himself—warts and all.

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“Fitting in,” being recognized as an aficionado, or knowing how to be an insider (rather than a tourist) surfaces as a dominant theme in Hemingway’s fiction and non-fiction. Hemingway prides himself on knowing how to handle his liquor, how to appreciate bullfighting, how to fish and hunt, and, most importantly, how to become accepted in any country he visits. Hemingway’s self-image, however, may be at odds with reality. In Africa, for example, the paid trackers that accompany Hemingway on his safari may or may not respect him. Further, whether Hemingway achieves insider status is moot since his view of Africa remains hopelessly distorted due to his position of privilege and his cultural baggage. In The Green Hills of Africa, Hemingway’s project to write an “absolutely true book” tends to deconstruct. Often, Hemingway achieves truth in ways he may not have intended and fails to achieve truth in ways he may not have foreseen.

Throughout his book, Hemingway uses Africa: as a hunting resource, as an extended metaphor, and as material for his next book. Despite Hemingway’s goal to present an “absolutely true book,” his rearrangement of events and extensive use of metaphor lend a fictional resonance to his purported non-fiction. The landscape, or “shape of a country,” operates on several levels in Green Hills. During Hemingway and Kandisky’s literary discussion, a metaphor is set up that extends throughout the book. Hemingway makes an implicit comparison between hunting and writing. The writer’s material becomes the landscape while his subject is the quest or “pursuit” itself. In Green Hills the subject of the pursuit is the elusive kudu, an animal you must hunt alone, like writers must write alone or else—contaminated by their contact with other writers—they all will become “angleworms in a bottle, trying to derive knowledge and nourishment from their own contact and from the bottle” (21).

In addition to the criteria Hemingway cites to become a great writer, namely talent, discipline, sincerity, intelligence, detachment, and time (27), it becomes apparent that the writer’s material, metaphorically the landscape, is also essential for success. Writers who do not experience life honestly and empirically will not have the material to be great but will instead present their “knowledge . . . wrapped in the rhetoric like plums in a pudding” (20), or write second-hand, dead prose. Kandisky, a watcher, exemplifies the sort of sterile, second-hand lifestyle Hemingway views as unproductive. Commenting on their conversation, Kandisky remarks, “This is what I enjoy. This is the best part of life. The life of the mind. This is not killing kudu” (19). What Kandisky omits in his version of the good life is the process of pursuit.

In Green Hills, Hemingway’s quest for suitable terrain dramatizes the writer’s creative process. His search for good land—the material—consumes much of the book’s action. Not surprisingly, the kudu embodies the writer’s aim, a goal Kandisky (a non-writer, non-hunter, non-taker-of-risks) can no more understand than the pursuit of the kudu. Kandisky, in fact, skeptically interrogates Hemingway’s motivation in both pursuits: as hunter and as writer.

By setting up this comparison between writing and hunting, material and land, early in the book, the narrative takes on the resonance of allegory, a literary device again crossing the boundaries of Hemingway’s ostensibly non-fictional project. As allegory, all the descriptions of landscape and pursuit may be read in terms of the writer’s craft and vice-versa. The repeated literary discussions and comments throughout the book—seemingly digressive non-sequiturs—reinforce this parallel construction; they are all as much about hunting as writing.

Hemingway thus imbues the African landscape with value: there is good land and bad land. In keeping with the patterns Carlos Baker has noted, the low lands are bad while the highlands (hills) are good. Consequently, Hemingway experiences mostly frustration and disappointment on the Serengeti plains and the Rift Valley. Both areas emerge as wastelands. Clearly, these barren lands are as incapable of generating superior game as poor material is of generating superior prose. Predictably, the kudu are found in the lush highlands, a land that emerges unexpectedly and wonderfully at the edge of the plain.

Under scrutiny, however, Hemingway’s allegorized landscape of good land/bad land, good material/bad material deteriorates. Even with talent or good land or good material, corruption lurks at the fringes. Similarly, the writer’s ability to truly represent reality—Hemingway’s standard for writing excellence—faces constant erosion due to the pressures of time as well as the exploitative forces of civilization.

In the metafictional world of Green Hills, then, what Hemingway sees happening to the land relates back directly to what he sees happening to writers. The land itself—particularly good land—will ultimately fall prey to corruption and exploitation. Throughout the book, Hemingway refers to Tanganyika’s similarities to more familiar landscapes such as that of Michigan, Wyoming, Spain, France, and so forth, to universalize his experience. Tanganyika becomes synecdochical for the physical world as well as the textual world of the writer. Accordingly, Hemingway looks at Africa through the optics of his homelands, weaving several countries into the East African terrain until Tanganyika serves as geographical microcosm. Hemingway’s nostalgic references to other civilizations serve to reinforce the idea that the old frontiers—American, Spain, France, etc.—have been exploited, only isolated pockets of wilderness remain, and that even the relatively “virgin” terrain of East Africa demonstrates signs of infiltration. Interestingly, Hemingway does not comment on how his own big game hunting contributes to this exploitation.

East Africa, though, is like a young, talented writer: fertile, valuable, and only showing faint traces of corruption. Hemingway can still find in the Masai’s terrain “a virgin country, an un-hunted pocket in the million miles of bloody Africa” (218). The Masai who live in this Eden are, appropriately, young and healthy. Conversely, association with civilization has already begun to mar the other areas of East Africa. The two trackers that lead him to the more idyllic Masai are, as Hemingway depicts them, a “disreputable” old man and his younger companion, a “skinny, dirty, Waterboo” (207). Hemingway’s inability to recognize himself as the “other” in Africa, as someone who stands out rather than blending into the landscape, blinds him to his role in marring Africa’s "virginity."

Instead, Hemingway continues his “use” of Africa as both a big-game resource and as a metaphor for writing. Even with the best land and best material, Hemingway posits, the hunter/writer may still fail. In Hemingway’s view, a writer who “cheats” can only turn out a corrupt product. In similar terms, a hunter who does not shoot cleanly will leave an animal “gut-shot,” to die uncleanly and horribly. The hyena represents the dirty death of integrity and talent. Ultimately, there is only death, dirty or clean. Whether by the forces of time or corruption, the hunter and/or writer’s talents will erode.

As Hemingway’s text suggests, to write well the author must experience the world and then be able to translate it. Hemingway provides us with an example. He takes the experience of his two-month safari, and omits, re-arranges, and condenses the action. In his reconstruction of events, the narrative begins near the end and then flashes back into the time just after Hemingway’s return from the hospital in Nairobi. The third section continues the action begun in section one, and the final section covers the last two days of the safari as well as a brief section a month later in Haifa, where they reminisce about the trip.

Hemingway’s manipulation of time serves a number of purposes. In his narrative unraveling, time folds back upon itself to form a circle. The “end” of the story—the final three days of the safari—receives double emphasis by its placement at the end and beginning of the book. Of the book’s nearly three hundred pages, over half are devoted to the last three days of the safari. Hemingway’s refusal to present events chronologically is analogous to Roman Ingarden’s assertion that, once read, a book “exists simultaneously” and nothing is really later or earlier in a “temporal sense.”

Our memory of real time operates similarly. Once experienced, an event exists in our consciousness in no particular order, and we may order the action and magnify it as we see fit. That Hemingway’s manipulation of time and action takes place in an autobiography—a form of non-fiction—rather than in a novel, highlights the artifice of chronological, so-called “realistic” fiction. Allegory, implicitly used through Green Hills, similarly fragments and spatializes time. As explained by Paul de Man, allegory exposes the slippage between sign and signifier rather than presuming the innate connection between sign and signifier symbolism implies. There is, for example, no logical or innate reason for Hemingway to overlay the process of hunting onto the process of writing except as the arbitrary—but artistic—conflation of events in his mind.

Hemingway’s separation of good land/bad land also leads to manipulation of time and action. Recognizing the redemptive powers of language, Hemingway hastens his narration of time spent in the dried-up plains but shifts into narrative slow motion when they are in the highlands. The cluster of associations that Hemingway uses to instill an “emotional atmosphere” into the landscape describes the “fourth dimension” of writing he refers in his earlier literary conversation with Kandisky. The good lands (the highlands) contain the good animals (kudu, sable) and good people (Masai). Hemingway’s oft-discussed “fifth dimension” involves another step. The earth, contrary to the passage from Ecclesiastes Hemingway quotes in The Sun Also Rises, may abide forever but not as it was. Crumbling and eroding under the effects of time and exploitation, the earth moves toward entropy. The hyena may ravage the beauty of the kudu; ego may dissolve the talent of writers; and, though it is not mentioned, people very much like Hemingway may destroy Africa’s virgin splendor. Nothing lasts; all things lose their innocence. However, if done perfectly, writing may preserve an experience, a landscape—as it was—forever. Against the corrosive effects of time, a “perfect” representation of reality—the emotions, the sensations, not just the facts—may allow someone to experience what we experienced, over and over again: the fifth dimension. Although he does not use that term, in the beginning of Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway writes what is perhaps his clearest articulation of the fifth dimension: "[it is:] the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if you stated it purely enough, always” (2).

When Hemingway states, then, that he will try to present the facts of the safari truly, he does not mean that there will be no artistic intervention. Clearly, a true representation can only occur with mediation, with the devices we generally associate with fiction. Hemingway’s assertion that none of the characters in the book is “imaginary” also warrants qualification. In Green Hills, Hemingway dominates the textual horizon; the other characters, thinly drawn, emerge as shadows in comparison. In contrast to the way he has represented Africa’s landscape, enhanced by full fictional apparatus, Hemingway’s representation of himself seems inescapably concrete; he juts into the narrative line, often acting un-heroically, but always complex . . . multivalent. Hemingway’s centeredness, his omnipresence, parallels the way we see ourselves. In this sense, then, the tendency for the Hemingway-persona to remain center-stage is a form of realism; we all enact this myth, Hemingway merely underscores it.

Like the landscape and the events of the safari that Hemingway so carefully shapes and crafts, his own persona, in order to appear “real” has undergone considerable construction. The construction of an autobiographical subject, to use Paul de Man’s terms, is always a process of “blindness and insight.” An autobiographer looking at his life, like a critic surveying a literary work, can only see parts of it, and selects from these parts the moments that will comprise his or her autobiography. But what of Hemingway’s project to present characters—including himself—truly? If autobiography involves omission, selection, reconstruction and, finally, our erasure by writing itself, the ability to create a “true” representation becomes impossible. True representation, seen as an attempt to mirror reality, can be only a nostalgic dream. Certainly, the overtly fictional techniques in Green Hills do not reflect an attempt to make reality equal imitation. Instead, Hemingway would probably concur with Virginia Woolf’s reputed remark: “Art is not a copy of the real world. One the damn things is enough.”

In the sense that Green Hills is a representation that totalizes or expresses everything in Hemingway’s safari, it is a failure. No one representation can ever be adequate. At best, the book is a fragment of how Hemingway remembered his experience, further distanced by the alienating powers of language. Hemingway, then, uses the word true to mean an artistic, rather than merely factual representation. Further, the Africa Hemingway constructs is blurred by the optics of privilege. Hemingway’s Africa would bear little resemblance to the Africa experienced by its own people. Consciously or unconsciously, Hemingway uses Africa. Throughout Green Hills, Africa is romanticized, allegorized, reduced to metaphor, and plundered. While Hemingway does construct a work of art, the truth of Green Hills, on any level, remains questionable. For all his efforts to present himself as an insider, as someone who understood Africa, Hemingway remains an outsider. Hemingway, at one point in the book, expresses his distaste for “safari books” written with a “bwana-mentality.” Yet, for all its artistry, Hemingway’s position as a tourist and the book’s biased construction of Africa, may relegate Green Hills to being just another safari book, though one better written than most.