HEMINGWAY'S TRUTH AND TRIBAL POLITICS.
Yet in spite of Patrick Hemingway's claim that the heart of this memoir resides in the "ambiguous counterpoint between fiction and truth," the fictionality of this text can easily be overstated (9). Mary Hemingway kept a diary diligently throughout the ,safari, and insofar as one can agree that this was work of nonfiction, one has to admit that most of the events in Hemingway's "fictional memoir" are grounded in fact. If Mary's diary is to be trusted, she indeed had trouble shooting, and she had a particular problem with scaring off animals by rolling up her sleeve. Likewise, she fondly rehearsed for Papa a prepared speech for any white woman who might try to steal him away. She had a dream in which her lion spoke in beautiful English with an Oxford accent, and she really did suspect that Ernest shot her lion before she did. She portrays the lion kill in almost precisely the terms of True at First Light, although she neglects to mention Ernest's unbelievably long "bow and arrow shot" (TAFL 168). She writes of feasting on filet of lion, and she writes of suffering from a weeklong depression after the lion's death.
By the same token, Mary's diary mentions the Mau Mau trouble, Denis Zaphiro's girl in Laitokitok, the beauty of Mrs. Singh, and the Life magazine with pictures of prehistoric animals. More importantly, it mentions Ernest's shaved head, his spear hunting, his clothes dyed Masai pink ochre, his desire to pierce his ears (significantly muted by Patrick's editing of True at First Light), his desire to be Wakamba, and his desire to have tribal marks or black skin (again, muted by Patrick s editing). Debba appears throughout Mary's journal both by name and as "Papa's girl" and "new wife"; Mary even proposes, with tolerant playfulness, that she could sleep in Patrick's tent for the night so Debba could stay over (provided she bathe first). Mary writes about Ernest taking the Wakamba girls to Laitokitok to buy dresses while she was away in Nairobi and about his post-leopard-hunting celebrations with Debba and the Widow that resulted in a broken bed: The day after killing his leopard, 15 December 19 53, Ernest wrote a letter to Slim Hayward that agrees entirely with the version of the leopard hunt that we get in True at First Light, and that continues:
Then in the afternoon we drive to Laitokitok. I better skip the rest. But will tell you unless it makes you sore in which case I would rather not and will forget it and deny. It is not being unfaithful to you because how can I do that when you're married to Leland and always married to somebody. I bought two good wives here. One is rough but fine. One loves me which is bad. I say I will send the boy to school, the best school available, and if it is a girl, will buy her a good dowry. It is a good tribe. Miss Mary does not mind because she is principal wife and obeyed and respected as such.
Given all of this, it is hard to decide just what exactly is being so insisted on as fiction. Of course, one could easily take Ernest's relationship with Debba too seriously by missing the element of play and fantasy in it--but if we can trust True at First Light on this topic, Mary was disturbed on this trip precisely by the porous boundary between Ernest's sense of play and reality: "'When it is all fantastic and you make up your lies and live in this strange world you have, then it is just fantastic and charming and I laugh at you. Then suddenly the nonsense gets so real that it is like having somebody
chop your arm off'" (73). If the "ambiguous counterpoint between fiction and truth" is central to the book, then, it is so because it was central to Hemingway's behavior and thought throughout his safari. Compared to A Moveable Feast, True at First Light is the true gen.
Yet to those critics who have accused Hemingway of lacking the necessary fictional distance to transform this material into art, I would point to his masterful use of it in The Garden of Eden. There Hemingway's moonlight spear-hunting and G.C.'s puppy, Kibo, reappear transformed in the story of David Bourne's youth. In the True at First Light manuscript, there is a marvelous passage, unfortunately sacrificed in the editing, about a legendary old bull elephant who has been hunted for years for ivory so enormous that it has become only a terrible burden. In the Eden manuscript, the adult David imagines that the scars on his face are "tribal marks," and the boy David returns from his elephant hunt to his African "fiancee." True at First Light's concern with African haircuts and racial metamorphoses is mirrored in the games played by the Bournes, and the Mau Mau uprising of 1953 reappears, transformed, as the Maji Maji rebellion of 1905.
Those critics who found in The Garden of Eden an occasion to explore Hemingway's treatment of race will have their hands full with True at First Light. The erotics of racial crossing that so occupy Catherine Bourne in the former novel appear here in full force, but now inextricably entangled with Hemingway's complex and unresolved tribal and colonial politics. In fact, with all due respect to For Whom the Bell Tolls, the politics of True at First Light may well be as complex as those to be found anywhere in Hemingway's work.
Hemingway traveled to Africa during what he called "a time of corruption, hatreds, sadism, and considerable hysteria"(TAFL 159). The Mau Mau uprising, an armed revolt primarily by Kikuyu peasants against British colonial rule, terrified white settlers and endangered Kenya's lucrative tourist industry. Mau Mau, which has been characterized by historians as everything from one of the greatest liberation struggles in African history to "an evil, malignant growth, a dark, tribal, septic focus,"(2) was a phenomenon of such enormous complexity that historians remain sharply divided as to its causes, nature, and impact. In 1953, however, its image in the popular press was clear. Inspired by a colonial propaganda machine Committed to preserving white power, stories with titles like "Murder by the Mau Maus: Kenya Natives Use Violence and Voodooism to Terrorize the British" (Life, 3 November 1952) featured savage terrorists who hacked their victims to death and drank their blood. Although only thirty-two white civilians were killed during the entire five-year Emergency (usually hacked to death with pangas)--as opposed to 1,819 loyalist Africans and 11,5 o 3 Mau Mau Africans (not to mention the 90,000 suspected Mau Mau Who ended up in detention camps)(3)--Hemingway arrived in a Kenya characterized by the article title of his fellow-American, Robert Ruark: "Your Guns Go with You: In the Africa of Mau Mau terror a writer on safari finds you need a weapon even when you take a bath" (Life 16 February 1953).
Hemingway parodied precisely such hysteria, and Ruark's article in particular, in his January 1954 article for Look magazine, poking fun at the false heroics of the well-armed bar-flies of Nairobi. Yet in True at First Light, Hemingway never strides into the shops of Laitokitok without his pistol in his well-fondled holster. As Honorary Game Warden, Hemingway worked as an "officer of the Crown" one of the last "Empire builders,' and he knew that he was receiving special treatment from the Game Department because the colonial government hoped reports of his safari would bolster its wounded tourist industry. Yet he can be harshly critical of colonialism, recognizing legitimate African grievances that were then being almost entirely ignored by the white settlers: "The white people always took the other people's lands away from them and put them on a reservation where they could go to hell and be destroyed as though they were in a concentration camp" (209). Mau Mau, in fact, was driven largely by just such overcrowding on the Reserves and by what the Kikuyu considered the theft of their land. Nevertheless, in a passage sliced from the manuscript, Hemingway wonders who stands to gain if the whites are kicked out of Kenya--certainly not the Africans, he supposes.
In this environment Hemingway's claim to be something other than white was, as Willie says, "timely" (79), but he stakes out an uncomfortable and unstable tribal position between the colonial whites and the Kikuyu Mau Mau. As an honorary Wakamba, member of a tribe both loyal to the British and with genuine grievances against the British, Hemingway eagerly engages in anti-Man Mau operations, interviewing suspects and booby-trapping his camp, yet he is critical of those who would take "the Queen's shilling" As he explains to Mary, the politics of his position are "'very mixed up. But did you ever see a more mixed up country?'" (114). Whatever Hemingway's tribal politics may lack in coherence, they are certainly complex enough to keep scholars busy with True at First Light for years to come.
(1.) Mary hunted a lion for almost a month from mid-September to mid-October in the area near Kimana Swamp, then after a month in Tanganyika and various other places, she began to hunt a new lion near Kimana Swamp again on 26 November. She killed this lion on 5 December.
(2.) Ione Leigh, In the Shadow of the Mau Mau (London: W.H. Allen 1955), 217.
(3.) David Maughan-Brown, Land, Freedom and Fiction: History and Ideology in Kenya (London: Zed Books, 1985), 38.
CARL EBY University of South Carolina Beaufort3
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|Publication:||The Hemingway Review|
|Article Type:||Brief Article|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1999|
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