Hemingway and the sea of uncertainty: tracing the steps of a Cuban-American classic

Ernest Hemingway’s boat, the Pilar, sits on display at the author’s estate in Havana. The boat helped inspire “The Old Man and the Sea.” (photo by: Blake Richardson)

By Blake Richardson

Ernest Hemingway is sitting in the middle of the Cuban sea, surrounded by cerulean waves with a fishing pole resting in his suntanned hands. He has an idea.

That old man sparked something — the way he fought an army of sharks that wanted to steal the fish off his line. He was completely isolated, but he still waved off Hemingway’s offer to help. And there was also something special about Hemingway’s companion: a Cuban fisherman named Gregorio Fuentes whom Hemingway considered like a brother. There was something about his eyes: blue like the sea and undefeated.

“There isn’t any symbolism,” Hemingway wrote in a letter to critic Bernard Berenson on Sept. 13, 1952. “The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.”

But was Hemingway telling the truth?

He also said Santiago was based on “nobody in particular,” but there’s no mistaking the similarities to Fuentes’ eyes or to the old man Hemingway witnessed fishing that day.

The Pilar, the boat that once cut through Caribbean waves, rests on a platform surrounded by a ring of wooden deck at the author’s Havana home, Finca Vigía. The Pilar is frozen in time, and I’m trying to freeze it in memory from all angles as I photograph the sanctuary of the man who mastered the English language. But I haven’t learned yet that this boat is where “The Old Man and the Sea” sprouted into fruition. That information comes later in the afternoon when I am conversing with Coralia Ortiz, an 80-year-old Cuban woman who taught literature and loves reading, too.

And so I embarked on a quest to trace the roots of one of my favorite novels. What I found was a collection of threads that tied back to Hemingway’s companions and experiences, to his mental health and to his very identity. My conclusion? Don’t believe everything writers say about their stories. Especially not Hemingway.

Making a life in a ‘melting-pot world’ 

“Ladies and gentlemen, you just heard the Cuban National Anthem,” the speaker announced to a confused crowd.

Even though Hemingway was born in Illinois, it was Cuba’s anthem that rang throughout the room to celebrate the American writer winning the Nobel Prize for literature.

Hemingway identified as a “Cubano sato,” a Cuban expression that means a Cuban half-breed. He also identified the country as “mi pueblo,” meaning “my people.”

Hemingway first came to Cuba 1928 on vacation. He was looking for a new home after feeling fed up with France and then with the United States. His visits to the country grew more frequent until he permanently moved to Finca Vigía in 1939. He lived there until 1960.

The writer’s ties to Cuba are so profound that Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera, a humanities professor at the University of Puerto Rico, questions whether we should consider Hemingway as American-Cuban in his essay “Cuba in Hemingway,” which is scheduled to publish in a month.

“Many of the most important events of Hemingway’s life occurred in Cuba (he lived there longer than any other place),” Herlihy-Mera said in an email.  “So it makes sense he would eventually feel at home on the island.”

Larry Grimes, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty at Bethany College, said Cuba reminded Hemingway of other places he loved: regions of Africa, Spain and the United States.

“He is a multi-cultural writer and chose to live in a melting-pot world,” Grimes said.

Even now, Hemingway’s legacy crops up in Havana. A long line has become a staple of his favorite bar, El Floridita. And his home — which you have to pay five CUC, or $5, to visit — is decked out with tour guides. A group of guitarists serenade tourists at an on-site bar, and a gift shop adjacent to the bar sells Cuba merchandise and Hemingway memorabilia. That’s where, for 2 CUC, I bought a print a little larger than a postcard — Santiago, his limbs as wiry as his fishing pole, holding his own in the duel with the massive swordfish lurking in the waters below.

The mysterious man and the eyes of inspiration 

Hemingway won one such battle during a fishing trip off the coast of Peru. But unlike his protagonist, Hemingway was not alone during the conquest of a 1,542-pound sailfish. Fuentes was by his side on the Pilar.

The first sign of overlap between Santiago and the man who shared a 20-year friendship with Hemingway is the piercing blue eyes. But it doesn’t stop there.

The old man was an immigrant from the Canary Islands, hence his affinity for lions. Fuentes, also from the Canary Islands, immigrated to Cuba when he was 22 after working on cargo ships. Hemingway would have seen a lot of immigrants from the Canary Islands in the country at the time; Cuba encouraged immigration of the islands’ poor white workers to provide cheap labor on sugar plantations.

While Fuentes’ characteristics parallel with the old man, he might not be Hemingway’s main source of inspiration. A 1936 article written by Hemingway in Esquire led Grimes to believe Carlos Gutierrez had greater influence.

Fuentes was with Hemingway when they saw an old man fighting sharks to fish. But  Gutierrez told Hemingway a similar story about  an old man rescued by fisherman after being pulled out on his skiff to sea for two days following a catch, Grimes said.

When the old man was rescued, sharks consumed more than half of his prize; only 800 pounds remained.  A similar story appeared in the magazine La Habana Elegante in 1891, but Grimes said it is probably even older than that.

Hemingway’s experience with a mysterious old man, Gutierrez’s story and other whispers of the Cuban tale could all have carried weight in triggering Hemingway’s imagination.

“It’s a fascinating story when you hear it the first time,” Grimes said. “It begs to be a novel.”

Crafting a tale to cope with the curse 

Mary Hemingway wouldn’t have wanted the Pilar to be burned into my memory. Or anyone’s memory, for that matter.

At first, she said his death was an accident: a bullet to the head while cleaning his rifle at his home in Ketchum, Indiana. But several months later, she said the writer committed suicide. He wasn’t the only one. His grandfather, father, sister, brother and granddaughter all killed themselves, leading Mariel Hemingway to tell CNN her family had a “horrible curse.”

Hemingway left the boat to Fuentes in his will, but Fuentes refused to use it without his friend. He and Mary were in agreement; she didn’t want anyone to set foot on the boat. Mary told The Atlantic that she wanted the Pilar sunk in the Cojimar fishing hole, but that area was closed off by the Cuban government. Instead, the boat is now displayed over the Finca Vigía dirt with the ocean out of sight.

Thoughts of suicide had plagued Hemingway for much of his life, and he’s received an abundance of psychological diagnoses, including bipolar disorder, alcohol dependence, traumatic brain injury and both borderline and narcissistic personality traits.

Despite Hemingway’s suffering, his story has become a source of healing. Dr. Saeed Momtazi of the Beheshti Medical Center in Iran wrote that he uses the book to provide therapy for people with depression. It can be a source of inspiration: the story of a man who refuses to abandon his hope.

But Grimes said the book might have been a way for Hemingway to cope with his age. Hemingway was 51 when he wrote the book; the U.S. life expectancy was 65 for a man at the time. With injuries from his time in the army and other accidents from his adventures, age was emphasizing the wear and tear of his body.

“He may have been thinking a bit about himself as an old man and how as an old man, you can demonstrate to yourself that you are still vital and alive,” Grimes said. “And while you’re alive, sharks are taking away pound after pound, day by day.”

The fantastic forge into the unknown 

The words on the page are blurring before my eyes, but I can’t quit crying. I can’t stop reading.

I finished “The Old Man and the Sea” in one day, and the story still sticks in my mind. The old man’s perseverance and boundless hope resonated with me.  And above all, I loved the notion that Santiago was the master of the seas, doing the thing he was born for — even if it took him 84 days to catch a fish.

I wasn’t the only one.

Tim Mahon, a former merchant seaman who lives in Hillsborough, worked on ships traversing oceans for about 10 years. During that time, he read passages of “The Old Man and the Sea” because he could relate to characters like Santiago, who forge into the unknown without any wisp of land on the horizon.

“If you don’t find something to do out there, like write or something, you can — it can be difficult,” he said. “You have to find something to keep your mind engaged other than just the job.”

Whether the experiences are relatable or not, Santiago’s character certainly is, and Hemingway’s writing transports us to his protagonist’s world.

“Hemingway’s writing allows us to experience Cuba and Havana and Cojímar in ways that are only available through literature,” Herlihy-Mera said.

My plans to travel to Havana inspired me to read what Hemingway considers his best novel. But the book went on to shape my journey from the moment I first saw the island emerging into view out of the airplane window.

Hemingway was right, I thought. The sea is a beautiful blending of blues.

Edited by Ryan Wilusz