HEMINGWAY WAS ALWAYS a little in love with Africa – or rather, with the idea of Africa. He set two of his most important short stories, ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ and ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’, in the East African bush, territory that also inspired the full-length non-fiction Green. Hills of Africa. In this handsomely illustrated new book Christopher Ondaatje suggests that Africa was a key influence both on Hemingway’s life and on his writings, and to illuminate his argument he follows the master’s tracks through Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
Hemingway in Africa hinges upon two safaris. During the first, in 1933-4, the writer made his way round the Masai steppe with his second wife Pauline Pfeiffer, his friend Charles Thompson and the usual caravan of bearers. The party moved steadily east and on to Handeni before crossing to Tanga and the Kenyan coast, ably guided by Philip Percival, a feisty farmer and white hunter who had already taken Teddy Roosevelt out shooting. Hem..ingway was much taken with Percival.
The second trip took place twenty years later, a bleaker time in Kenya, as Ondaatje acknowledges. Accompanied this time by his fourth wife, Mary Welsh, a rich Cuban friend and a photographer from Look magazine, Hemingway based his party at Tsavo, near the foot of the fabled Mount Kilimanjaro. He had managed to coax Percival out of retirement to guide them. There is a heavenly photo of the pair in this book, sitting on folding chairs outside their tents, Percival thoughtfully chewing on a pipe and the spectacled Hemingway clasping a teacup, presumably one brimming with whisky. The trip produced a sprawling journal, posthumously published as Time at First Light (an African elephant hunt also appeared in the posthumous novel The Carden of Eden). But at the end of this second safari, Hemingway endured two plane crashes on the trot and was seriously injured.
Ondaatje has written on Africa before: in his Journey to Hemingway the Source of the Nile he employed a similar format, recreating the journeys of some of the first Europeans in East Africa. In this new book he telescopes the two Hemingway safaris into one 7 ,300-kilometre trek, weaving together, in his narrative, anecdotal threads from both Hemingway’s travels and his own. It makes an easy read. Entertaining digressions include the epic story of the construction of the Uganda railway, known as the Lunatic Express, surely one of the most overweening examples ofVictorian civil engineering. Ondaarje wonders, as many other writers have, how far the railway engineer and lion-killer J H Patterson was the model for the white hunter Robert Wilson in ‘Francis Macomber’.
The historical background is of the Ladybird variety (‘The 192..Qs brought social change’), but Ondaatje overcomes this with an engagingly chatty style (‘Why Hem.ingway had it in for hyenas so violently is a bit of a mystery’) and a number of meaty themes. ‘More than any other writer, including [Karen] Blixen,’ he suggests, ‘Hemingway established Africa in the American consciousness .’ I wonder. .. He examines how his protagonist’s attitudes changed in the twenty years between the safaris. ‘The author of thi s art icle’, Hemingway wrote in ‘The Shot’ (referring to himself) in 1951, ‘believes that it is a sin to kill any non- “dangerous game animal except for meat.’ But he wasn’t averse to a spot of sinning when it suited him.
There is here a pleasing sense of bathos. The book includes, naturally, a discussion of the famously passionate idealisation of the continent as the perfect female lover in Green Hills of Africa. ‘If you have ever really loved her happy and untragic,’ Hemingway intones, ‘she loves you always; no matter whom she loves nor where she goes she loves you more. So if you have loved some woman and some country you are very fortunate and, if you die afterwards it makes no difference.’ Ondaarje follows this up with details of a nasty bout of diarrhoea the master suffered on safari, sleeping lion ·
The primary material is unevenly spread, but there is enough of it to go on, and Ondaatje draws on a wide range of sources, including Pauline Pfeiffer’s unpublished journal and Mary Welsh’s autobiography – a tome, incidentally, that includes lion recipes. He also makes good use of Hemingway’s journalism, notably the swaggering despatches to Esquire. The biographical account is fleshed out with contemporary campfire tales such as, memorably, a ghoulishly gripping story concerning the African exploits of New York socialite and mountaineer Sandy Pittman (she appeared in Jon Krakauer’s bestselling Into Thin Air, being towed up Everest by a Sherpa).
Like many great writers, Hemingway emerges from his own story as a failed human being. But who cares about that? Through his own journeying, and his examination and analysis of the Hemingway safaris, Ondaatje evokes the curiously compelling, if ultimately inexplicable, metaphorical role of Africa in the writer’s psyche. ‘I had been a fool not to have stayed on in Africa,’ wrote Hemingway in True at First Light. ‘It had not been easy to get back nor to break the chains of responsibility that are built up, seemingly, as lightly as spider webs but that hold like steel cables.’ Indeed.