The late Matrin Seymour-Smith’s, in 1,200-page Guide to Modern World Literature (1973) called Ernest Hemingway’s called the symbolism of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea “portentious, and its simplicity false”
It is, it is true a skillful performance and – the Christian Symbolism apart – a ainxwew one. It conveys Hemmingway’s message: life is futile, but we must live it nobly and with courage. However, it is not fresh, but lurcurbated; the words are not drawn from a deep well, but pondered and put together by the legendry image: ‘Papa Hemingway’.
I thought until reading the and extract from Mario Vargas Llosa’s Touchstones: Essays on Literature, Art and Politics published today’s edition of The Guardian that Seymour-Smith’s were the final words on the book.
The apparent clarity of The Old Man and the Sea is deceptive, like certain biblical parables or Arthurian legends that, beneath their simplicity, contain complex religious and ethical allegories, historical references and psychological subtleties. As well as being a beautiful and moving fiction, this tale is also a representation of the human condition, according to Hemingway’s vision. And, to some extent, it was also a resurrection for its author. The Old Man and the Sea was the swan song of a great writer in decline and, thanks to this proud tale, he became again a great writer by producing what in the course of time – Faulkner saw this – would become, despite its brevity, the most enduring of all his books. Many of the works he wrote, which in their time seemed as if they would have a lasting effect, such as For Whom the Bell Tolls and even the brilliant The Sun Also Rises, have lost their freshness and vigour and now seem dated, out of touch with current sensibilities that reject their elemental macho philosophy and their often superficial picturesque nature. But, like a number of his stories, The Old Man and the Sea has survived the ravages of time without a wrinkle, and preserves intact its artistic seduction and its powerful symbolism as a modern myth
Later, in what is surely a key passage from his essay, Lllosa justifies his estimation of the novel:
….what gives the adventure of the Cuban fisherman in those tropical waters its extraordinary breadth is that, by osmosis, the reader recognises in the struggle of old Santiago against the silent enemies that will end up defeating him a description of something more constant and universal: that life is a permanent challenge, and that by facing up to this challenge with the bravery and dignity of the fisherman in the story, men and women can achieve a moral greatness, a justification for their existence, even though they might be defeated. This is the reason why when Santiago returns, exhausted and with bloody hands, to the little fishing village where he lives (Cojímar, although that name is not mentioned in the text) carrying the useless skeleton of the big fish eaten by the sharks, he seems to us to be someone who, through his recent experience, has gained enormously in moral stature, surpassing himself and transcending the physical and mental limitations of ordinary mortals.
It’s a long time since I read the novella; maybe it about time to read it again.