Five years ago I was sat on the eighteenth floor of my university’s library, as the Glasgow rain lashed violently at the window, when my phone buzzed to interrupt my study (of memes). It was a text from my father: ‘Liddy. Greetings from Havana. I’m in La Floridita drinking daiquiris like Ernest Hemingway. Ha. Dad X’
My cigar-centric dad was on a week-long trip to the annual cigar festival; smoking four a day, visiting the factories, listening to the talks and swapping anecdotes as he floated on his smoky Cloud 9. For a man who treated holidays with a distain normally reserved for Monday mornings, his Cuban adventure seemed to have altered his outlook.
Last week he took us back to his communist Disneyland. Due to a recent bout of poor health on my mother’s part and my brother’s impending move abroad, it was the right time for the four of us to squabble our way through the sky to the sunshine. A family holiday. “Who knows when we’ll all be together again” Mum said, repeatedly.
The night before we left I was in my room, packing like a Blitzkrieg bomber, when Dad knocked to give me his copy of The Essential Ernest Hemingway. Like a singer that doesn’t like songs or a painter that power-walks past, I am ashamed to admit that I’m a writer that rarely reads novels. But it’s January, so new-year-new-me, and I have resolved to reform. I had already begun re-reading The Great Gatsby, and The Catcher In The Rye was packed for after, but I wanted to read Hemingway in the place where he wrote. I’m a poser like that and quite fancied the image of drinking hard-liquor and chain-smoking at a bar, absorbed in the words of the handsome writer.
On the flight Mum turned to me. “I’d like to visit Hemingway’s house, it’s 15 miles outside of Havana.” She went back to reading Mrs Hemingway, a book about the four women in his life. Dad was sat in front reading The Old Man and The Sea, Hemingway’s Nobel Prize-winning novel, on his Kindle. My brother was fast asleep.
Havana is like no place on earth, like no other Caribbean city. It’s stuck in 1960-something, almost unchanged from Hemingway’s time. The cars are classics; space-race era Mustangs and candy-coloured Chevrolets, kept alive by gaffer tape, wire, tin-cans and debris. The buildings are colourful and crumbling, and the genial locals bound together by recurrent images of the revolution. My family are bound together by four glasses of mojito at a restaurant table.
“Ernest Hemingway invented the mojito and the daiquiri” said Dad, between puffs.
“That can’t be right.”
“I think it is… He was a big drinker.”
He was not right. Hemingway didn’t invent cocktails, he drank them.
The next day we visit La Floridita, an old Hemingway haunt. Inside is a bronze statue of the writer leaning on the bar like a pub-raconteur. A photograph of my dad beside it has been his computer background since 2013.
“Where was yours taken? Where is the other statue?”
“What other statue? It was taken here.”
“Your photo is set outdoors.”
“No it isn’t. I should know.”
“I promise you it is. I can picture it well.”
We start to argue, both adamant. Typically my stubbornness grates and he explodes in the doorway, his voice bellowing across tourists’ snapchat stories. We burst out into the street.
“Dad, I am telling you. I know that photo. I remember it clearly because I always think how much weight you’ve lost. The sun is in your eyes!”
“Liddy, for fuck sake, it’s the sun through the window!”
“I will cut off my right leg if I’m wrong.”
“You are wrong.”
“Let’s make a bet then. You are going to be so embarrassed when you get home.”
“Fine. A hundred pounds.”
We shake on it. I’ve gone too far and he’s spitting through smoke. We both exhale.
Back at the hotel I google the statue. I was wrong. Damn! I owe my dad a hundred pounds. I swallow my pride and we go to dinner at a restaurant where marlin is served. The Old Man and The Sea is a story about an old fisherman trying to catch a marlin, so my parents suggest we order it.
“Then we can say we ate marlin in Cuba, like Hemingway.”
“Can we please stop talking about bloody Hemingway. Who cares?” groans my brother.
Two more days of sun and smoke, then we stop for lunch at Bodeguita Del Medio, the birthplace of the mojito. Dad complains that it has been ruined by Americans: you can no longer smoke and the babes with trays of cigars are gone. The place is a Hemingway shrine and people come from all over to mark their name on the walls. It is also the place where I chomp down two mouthfuls of pure pork fat, thinking its aubergine. This fills my brother with glee and me with nausea, as a nine-year-long vegetarian. Soon my stomach begins to bubble and come midnight I am stuck to the toilet with numb feet.
In the morning, my flat-stomached-self finishes The Catcher In The Rye.
“Mum, I think I am Holden Caulfield.”
“Everyone thinks that, that’s why the book resonates with so many young people. It’s an American classic.”
“No but I actually am him. It’s not a good thing. Other people aren’t like him.”
In retrospect she is right. Holden is lost; we all feel lost sometimes. When we do, we can feel alone, like we are the only ones. That’s why it is such a classic; it captures an essence of something so hard to articulate.
I am now ready to read old Hemingway. I decide, instead, to borrow The Old Man and The Sea as it’s his most famous and acclaimed; more essential than The Essential Ernest Hemingway.
Twenty pages in and I’m struggling. If it hadn’t won a Nobel Prize I’d have tossed it ten pages back. The language is basic, devoid of description. Short sentences. So easy to read that it is actually difficult. It reminds me of the Biff and Chip books I read in kindergarten. The old man loved fishing. He liked to fish with the boy / “I am so tired” said the old man to the boy. Well, I am tired too old man.
The novel is about hope and perseverance. The old man gives all he’s got to catch the fish, only for it to be eaten by sharks. The story seems almost biblical, which I’m told is a common analysis, but its 115 pages should be condensed to bible-verse-length. There is not one quote to be drawn and reading it is just like sitting alone in a fishing boat for days, waiting for something to happen.
That is the trouble with the overtly handsome, they don’t have to be as great to be considered. Their worth is topped up by their face. I had always grouped him in with my other crushes: Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson. They too were men that drank and womanised but they spent their life and words searching, with sadness in their eyes. Hemingway seems their opposite, too practical for poetry. Succinct and successful. He did win the Nobel Prize, so perhaps I am missing something. I probably am, but if I need an English professor to explain the magic I will never be under the spell. On the back cover of The Essential Ernest Hemingway it says ‘half of writers try to write like Hemingway and the other half don’t.’ I won’t.
Bloody Hemingway, because of him I’m out of pocket, have swallowed two mouthfuls of pork fat and spent a night bum-to-basin. I don’t even fancy him anymore.
That evening, over a final Hemingway daiquiri, I told my parents I didn’t like the book.
“Nor did I. It’s not very good” admitted my mother.
“Yes, I found it very hard to get into” said my father.
“Oh give it a rest” moaned my brother.
“Why didn’t you say?”
Dad ignored me, and stared at the block of mounting ash on the cigar between his fingers. He turned to my brother.
Then the old man said to the boy “I looked it up earlier and I don’t think Hemingway even smoked cigars.”
And with that, he tapped the ash off the end.