Prasanna Natarajan

The Old Man and The Sea - by Hemingway, Ernest

READ: 2019-08-04, RATING: 10/10

See Goodreads Page for details and reviews.

My thoughts

Ever heard of Hemingway? Think he’s a poet? High school memories? That’s what I thought too. I also knew of a software named after him. It helps write simple sentences. (Fun stuff. After publishing, I edited this with the help of this app. It’s great!)

But recently I knew a bit more about him after reading Kamal Ravikant:

  • Kamal’s prose is unlike any. It’s simple, tight and poetic. Tender loins and no fat (vegans, read: potato without the skin). He mentioned he’s inspired by Hemingway’s writings.
  • The secret to Hemingway and Kamal’s writings is this: Write one true sentence. Just write what rings true to your heart. Repeat. One true sentence after the other.
  • Youtube’s algorithms led me to a 1.5 hr documentary of the man. It was fascinating. The man lived a wonderful life. He chased women, smoked cigars and hunted lions. He boxed, fished, traveled and lived in many cities. He was a war-correspondent and then cheated death 5 times. Won Pulitzer and Nobel prizes. He loved life. And then decided the drama is enough and ended his life by putting a bullet in his mouth.

(The thumbnail is wrong. Hemingway is not a woman.)

So I dropped everything I had to do and bought his famous novella “The Old Man and the Sea” and read it this Sunday.

It’s great. It’s moving, kind, optimistic and sad. Makes you feel hopeful. (Reminder that there’s more truth in fiction than non-fiction. Which is why you should read and tell stories.)

It’s a simple story of a simple-minded old fisherman. For the previous 84 days his luck failed him and he didn’t catch any fish. On the 85th day he sets sail and then finds the biggest fish he’ll ever catch. For the next 2 days he struggles with it and the rest of the story is about.. well it’s different, and I want you to find out. It’s worthy of your time.

I’ve heard Hemingway writes about ordinary people doing ordinary things. This is one such book. The Old Man doesn’t think too much into life. (Which is what’s causing soul-crushing depression in smart people.)

He does have a lot of sad things going on in his life. He’s poor, his wife’s dead and has no kids. His left arm goes numb often, he doesn’t eat that often as he has no money and he hasn’t caught a fish in 84 days! But then he has a natural optimism built in thanks to his simple mind. He takes on each day fresh, speaks to and motivates himself when he’s down. Looks at birds as companions and stars as his long-last friends when he’s lonely. Respects and thinks high of the fish he’s catching and killing. And treats his job as a meditation (thinks it’s rude to listen to radio while fishing. One must be always mindful of the job at hand.).

All these aspects are funny and revealing to me. Here I am, thinking I’m a smart ass who reads books, meditates and thinks about life’s big questions (meaning, enlightenment etc). But then all I end up doing is feel depressed by the pointlessness of it all, scared of the future and regret the past. Never savoring the present. And then I hear this Old Man shout in my ears: “Do your job. It’s called Karma Yoga. BITCH! Oh wait, there’s a fish pulling my line. He seems big!”

This book reinforces my love and huge respect for people who go on about their lives doing what they are born to do. With unwavering focus, against the Tyranny of Life itself. Sometimes even feeling happy doing it! I’m startled by these people and feel shaken and told by them to come out of my moody sombre and get a life! (“Well, it’s the weather you know. You need to get out to increase your sun exposure. It’ll secret Vitamin D which’d get rid of your melancholy!” Shut up you Joe-Rogan-listening dumbshit!)

It’s a reminder to live a life.

It’s great to read to kids. In America this book is a required reading in a lot of highschools.

It’s great to re-read at various points in your life (as are all books). As a kid you’ll read it as the story of a fisherman catching a fish. As a teen, you’ll read it as a fisherman having an adventure. As a being who thinks he suffers midlife crisis (me), you might tend to make meaning out of even a fart the old man lets out. As a wise old man yourself, you’ll surely say “Throw that shit out, I’ve lived better stories! Hold my cane.”

If you haven’t read a book in your life, then this is perfect. It’s short and well.. simple.

Not quite, there’s a lot of fishing related jargons. I didn’t knew any except baits and sardines. So I had to google/wiki/youtube a lot of the terms to understand what’s going on. Like harpoon, skiff, lines, fillet, gutting/skinning a fish, the bow and stern of a boat, the tiller, the mast and the sail, fathoms etc.

It was jolly fun getting to know about fishing for the first time despite eating a million fish in my life before. Like for example you know the old man caught a small penguin, skinned it and ate it raw? And he caught shrimps and then squeezed the head out and ate the shell raw? God help me not to eat a shrimp raw the next time I’m washing it alone in my house! I even subscribed to a youtube channel where they go and catch all sorts of fish, including sharks! I’ll one day go fishing!

After reading this, you might wonder if somebody made a movie out of it. You’ll be right. But don’t watch the live action one. It’s low-budget and poor acting. But there’s this great short animation movie (19 mins) made from a series of oil paintings by a great Alexandr Petrov. Every frame is stunning and the whole thing captures the book’s mood very well.

Highlights from the book

Everything about the old man was old with the sole exception of his eyes. His eyes resembled the colour of the sea and were joyous and unconquered.

The old man was also a simple man. He did not think about how and when he had become humble. But he knew that he was, just like he knew that his humility did not shame him in any way and that it did not hurt his pride.

“I can always borrow that kind of money. It’s easy,” the boy said. “I think even I can,” the old man said. “But I prefer not to as at first you borrow and then you beg.”

“I must make sure that he has water here to wash up,’ the boy decided. “I must also ensure that he has a soap and a good towel. Oh, why have I been so thoughtless? He also needs a new shirt, a winter jacket, shoes and a new blanket.”

“Age is my alarm clock,” the old man said and then asked, “Why is it that old men wake up so early in the morning? Is it the desire to live one day longer?”

The old man had stopped dreaming about storms, women or any great happenings. He no longer dreamed about great fish, battles, bouts of strength or even his wife.

He knew that it was all the food and drink that he would consume all day. He had stopped carrying lunch for a long time now as eating simply bored him. All that he needed for the entire day was a bottle of water he had stashed away in the bow of the skiff.

“If the other fishermen heard me talk aloud, they would probably think I’m mad. But since I’m not, I really do not care,” he declared. He thought about the rich fishermen possessing radios that broadcast the latest baseball news. “This is hardly the time to think about baseball,” he thought. “Instead, it is the time to think about just one thing, the thing I was born for.

“It is up to me not to let him know his own strength and what he is capable of if he started running. If I were in his place, I’d go full steam ahead till I broke the line. Thank God they do not possess as much intelligence as we who kill them. But they are more honourable and capable than us.”

“But I’ll kill him eventually, despite his greatness and show of strength!” the old man pledged. “It might not be fair, but I’ll show him what a man is capable of doing and coping up with. I had boasted to the boy that I was a strange old man, didn’t I? Well, I must prove it now!” The old man had proved himself again and again in the past. But when he faced a challenging situation like this, he totally forgot about the past and was keen to prove a point again.

“Soon, I shall have all my distant friends for company,” the old man stated as he gazed at the stars. “But this fish is my friend too. But I must kill him even though he is my friend. Thank God we do not have to kill the stars! What if a man was supposed to try and kill the moon or the sun every day? What if the sun and the moon ran away like the fish?”

“He is a great fish! How many people will he feed? Will they be worthy enough to feed on his flesh? Surely not! The fish is too great and refined for any man to be worthy enough to eat his meat,” he decided.
(My favorite line! Man is never nobler than the beings he (thinks he) conquered!)

He made a mental note to eat the dolphin later to increase his strength after deciding to rest for an hour. But he rested for two hours or that is what he thought as he had no way of telling how much time had elapsed.

“I cannot fail now when I have the upper hand and die after fighting for so long,” he exclaimed. “Help me win, O God and I shall say a hundred Hail Marys as well as a hundred Our Fathers,” he promised. “But please, I can’t say them now! But think of it as done as I shall do it later.”

“But I must wait till he is really, really close!” he decided. “Then I must aim carefully. I mustn’t aim for the head. I must pierce his heart!” “You need to be calm and brave, old man,” he said to himself in an encouraging manner.

“I moved him!” the old man exclaimed as he held on to the fish despite all his tiredness. “Maybe I can get him now finally. Pull, hands! Help me legs! Think for me, head! I’ll pull him over this time!”

His mouth was parched with thirst but he could not even reach out for his water bottle. “I cannot survive any more of his turns,” the old man confessed. “I must get him now!” “Of course you can!” he said to himself. “You can take many more of his turns. You are the best.”

“You have made up your mind to kill me now, fish,” the old man stated. “You have every right to do that, of course. I have never seen a calmer, greater, nobler, braver fish or one who is as beautiful as you are, my brother!” he complimented the fish.

“Well, go ahead and kill me now! I do not care anymore who kills whom now.” “Your head is all muddled up now,” the old man said to himself. “It is important that you manage to clear your head. You should learn to endure pain like a real man, or even a fish for that matter. Clear up, head,” he ordered in a voice that was almost inaudible. “Clear up right now!”

The old man used his thumb and forefinger to pinch their heads off from their bodies and ate up the shells and tails. He chewed them slowly and although they were tiny, he knew that they tasted good and were nutritious.

A man has not been made to accept defeat. He can be completely destroyed but never defeated.

DiMaggio never appears in the novel though. But he plays a vital role as Santiago hero-worships him to the point of devotion. DiMaggo is Santiago’s parameter when it comes to strength and commitment and he thinks about DiMaggio whenever he needs to be reassured about his own strength or when he is in a difficult situation.