Monday, April 15, 2013

Green Hills of Africa

“Your first seeing of a country is a very valuable one.  Probably more valuable to yourself than to any one else, is the hell of it.  But you ought to always write it to try to get it stated.  No matter what you do with it.”

This is one of the many great lines in Ernest Hemingway's nonfiction account of his time in Kenya, Green Hills of Africa.  I am currently writing this to you from Nairobi, moving in on my third week in this beautiful country.  I brought this book along with me, knowing that I wanted to save it for when I could see his descriptions with my own eyes and better grasp his message.  It was the perfect setting to read this wonderful book, as it tossed in some words I'm learning in Swahili along with the descriptions of the people, animals, and landscape that I am likewise seeing.

At the beginning of the book, Hemingway says that he wrote Green Hills of Africa to see whether an "absolutely true book" could compete with a work of imagination.  We are all familiar with his many fictional masterpieces - A Farewell to Arms, The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, etc - but it is entirely different to read him in this book.  In between his tales of hunting buffalo and rhinoceros, he shares the conversations he had with those in his traveling company.  In many of these conversations, he discusses what makes a good writer and a bad one.  He analyzes the breakdown between a true masterpiece and the "slop" that comes from hurry and/or arrogance.  He specifically names a number of authors, many of whom were alive while he wrote, and labels their work as good or bad.  Hemingway lived in what we may consider the "Golden Age" of writers, nestled in the community of ex-patriots in Paris.  On a regular basis, he conversed with Gertrude Stein, F Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and many others.  For a literature lover like myself, it is a real treat to get some of this inside scoop.

I also love this book because Hemingway truly loved Africa.  Unlike many mzungu (white) writers of his generation, he really portrays each of the Africans as real people and unique individuals.  He admires some of the Africans he met greatly, awed by their tracking skills and physical capabilities.  Others annoy him to no end, to the point that he frequently dreams of punching them in the face.  This is true of people anywhere, and I love that he doesn't blanket them in one description or stereotype.  He enjoys learning Swahili until the words sound completely natural to him, as do the tribal marks and African traditions he often encounters.  He loves the suspense and adventure of hunting wildlife, and he shares his embarrassing mistakes as well as his impressive accomplishments.  He just loves Kenya:

“I loved this country and I felt at home, and where a man feels at home, outside of where he’s born, is where he’s meant to go.”

I should note that this book does not touch on the tension in Africa, nor its problems and poverty.  Hemingway's account is quite limited to his personal experience while on a long hunting journey.  But I don't mind that he focuses on the beauty and adventure, because sometimes that aspect of Kenya gets lost somewhere in translation to the West.  As a foreign mzungu, he could never grasp the complexities of this country and fairly identify them in a short novel.  So in this case, I think it is better that he didn't even attempt to do that.  Other novels, like Things Fall Apart, are much better equipped to do it.

Reading Hemingway's perspective on his time in Kenya inspires me to want to do the same thing.  Here I am, seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching these wonderful sights.  Here I am, carefully observing the people and surroundings I encounter.  Here I am, witnessing the good and the bad together.  Here I am, likewise falling in love with Kenya.  I am forming my own perspective of this country, though I realize that I may not be forming an accurate one.  But it is nevertheless unfolding before me, and it will contain value for me regardless of what I am able to do with it.  This is one of those parts of my life in which real life is greater than fiction, and I want to hold on to that and make it last as long as possible.  Like Hemingway, I ought to find a way to "get it stated."

To my fellow readers, I do think you should check out this book, but I also think you should come see Kenya for yourselves.


Jessica said...

Loved this, especially that first quote from Hemingway! I can't wait to share in your stories and experience of Kenya. I knew you'd love it, too.

Anonymous said...

Added to the list. I need to learn to write about Africa like Hemingway. Thanks!