Kerry Tinga explores Hemingway’s legacy in Cuba
I had dreamt months in advance, in excitement, of what I would see when I walked the streets of Old Havana. There were once bright and colorful facades that had seen better days, now with chipped paint, graffiti and faded signs. I was told it would be like stepping back in time, but it wasn’t, and I’m glad. There was a beautiful sense of decay that seemed so genuine and real, not a Disneyland type artificial old town but a thriving community attempting to preserve a moment in time with what they could manage.
Even the convertibles that acted like taxi cabs, a main attraction when coming to Havana, were often made of mismatched engine parts, although if you are lucky some really are the genuine article. Nonetheless, the experience is truly genuine, with all its merits and all its faults. As I rode along the Malecon, Havana to my right and the ocean to my left, I felt the wind in my hair and for a moment felt incredible. Then the moment seized as I started to feel the sun burning my legs, a bug hit my face, I could start smelling the gasoline and my hat flew right off my head (amazingly caught by my uncle who was riding in another convertible right behind).
We rode all the way to Finca Vigia, or the Lookout Farm in English, the old home of, now turned part-museum part-shrine to, Ernest Hemingway, one of the most famous inhabitants of the Havana of the past. It was exactly as I would have imagined it, filled with the animals he had hunted, there was the pool he once told the poolboy that should never be emptied after Ava Gardner swam in it naked, a typewriter, posters, bottles of alcohol, his boat Pilar, and, of course, hundreds and hundreds of books.
Afterwards, we continued our Hemingway tour by going to Cojimar, a small, quiet fishing village that gave Hemingway the inspiration for his novella The Old Man and the Sea, the ultimate love letter by Hemingway to Cuba. In an interview after he won the Nobel Prize he called it “more or less my town”. There is a bust of Hemingway, not particularly great, that smiled and faced the ocean. Our tour guide told us that after the fishermen of Cojimar heard that Hemingway passed away they donated the propellers of their boats to be melted and used to create the bust of “Papa”, as he was called. The sculptor was so moved that he did not charge them for his service. There did not seem to be anybody else in the village except a few old fishermen, all of whom seemed to me like they could have been Santiago, lazing by their skiff, or just staring out into the ocean.
As lovely as the scene was, the sun was getting stronger so we decided to go back to the city. When the ride was finally over I could barely get myself out. My skin was sticking to the plastic covers of the seat, my sweaty hands barely able to hold on to the door. It was the middle of August, and one of the hottest days I had ever experienced.
I would have done anything for a bottle of water at that moment, but I was in Havana, once the playground of the rich and famous where rules and sense did not apply, so instead I went into a bar. The neon sign of El Floridita, an old haunt of Ernest Hemingway, was right at the corner. “El mojito a la Bodeguita, el daquiri a la Floridita” he (apparently) used to say, and at that moment a nice, cold, oh so very sweet daiquiri was just what I needed. The daiquiri was one of his favorite drinks, although I have read that he was quite fond of pretty much any alcohol that would get him drunk quickly, but daiquiris to him “felt, as you drank them, the way downhill glacier-skiing feels running through powder snow.”
I entered the bar and was met with a throng of tourists. I overheard more English, French, pretty much any other language, than Spanish. At the corner of the bar was a statute of Hemingway, on the counter a notebook and reading glasses, on the wall hung a photograph of Fidel Castro and him taken at a fishing tournament. There were drunken tourists in the middle of the day taking turns to get a photo of themselves putting their arm around the statute as if they and Hemingway were old friends, girls kissing his bronze cheek, others pretending they were in the middle of an engaging conversation about bullfighting, or fishing, or Africa. It was very different from the scene at Cojimar, but they were both just two sides of the same Hemingway.
The romanticized idea of Hemingway seemed to me a reflection, or maybe effect, of the romanticized idea of Havana and Cuba in general. All around the world Hemingway, the man, was seen as a joke. During his time as part of the so-called Lost Generation in Paris he was seen as another drunk American, and back in his home in America he was just seen as a drunk. He was the ultimate sign of macho-chismo, with all his game and hunting, or simply, as has been called of him throughout his life, an a-hole who never said please, thank you or sorry to anyone. And yet, his life, and his novels inspired by his life, and articles on game and hunting and what have you, are highly lauded and romanticized by all these tourists coming to Havana to find Hemingway. Even I have to admit that I had my copy of The Old Man and the Sea in my luggage in Havana, A Moveable Feast in my luggage in Paris, and all his novels, short stories and collection of articles on my shelf back home.
Walking the streets of this mysterious little island it was hot and sticky, loud and smelly, chaotic and amazingly colorful… for all the complaining I did while I was there, I beg to return. It is an island part delusion, part redemption, a place full of runaways, half coming in, half going out, an experience in and of itself just because there is nowhere quite like it.
Perhaps the fascination with Hemingway, what keeps drawing us readers back to his beautifully crafted sparse lines, is that no matter how many times he and his characters are in-and-out of love, there is always the passion of life, of immense truth, until, just at the end, there finally is none. Hemingway in Cuba is still the Hemingway of passion and of truth, he is the poster child of the on-and-off again love affair this mysterious island has with the rest of the world. The Hemingway of Cuba is the one who resurrected his career, who once wrote, “But man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated”. And he wasn’t destroyed, never destroyed, at least not in Cuba.
Image credits: Kerry Tinga