True at First Light
by Ernest Hemingway
In 1999, Ernest Hemingway's centennial year, this previously unpublished work went public. It had been edited by the author's son Patrick Hemingway from an unfinished manuscript twice as long as the final book. If you want to see what Patrick left out of his father's semi-autobiographical novel, or semi-fictional memoir, you can read that too: see Under Kilamanjaro, edited by scholars from the Hemingway Society. My advice, however, would be to accept the book in the form Patrick Hemingway gave it, because in my opinion it is just about perfect. True at First Light lovingly conjures the beauty of one of Africa's most spectacular wild places, populates it with characters who partake of a fascinating way of life, and places in their midst a sympathetically flawed narrator whose gentlemanly wisdom Hemingway seems to have wished, or even half-believed, was his own.
The book is loosely based on a two-month period in 1953-54 when Ernest Hemingway served as acting game warden on the north slope of Mount Kilamanjaro, in the African nation of Kenya. He and his fourth wife Mary had been guests of the regular game warden, and were happy to fill in while the latter tended to his farm. The African idyll ended when the Hemingways survived two plane crashes on the same day, resulting in exaggerated rumors of their demise. The author was more seriously injured than anyone realized at the time, and partly as a result of these injuries he gradually lost the ability to concentrate on his work. And so this book remained unfinished at the time of Hemingway's suicide in 1961.
The book does not cover the plane crash or its aftermath, though there are ominous foreshadowings of it for him who has eyes to read between the lines. Instead, it focuses on a few weeks during the author's term as interim game warden, on Mary's obsessive stalking of a rogue lion, on the author's (completely fabricated) affair with a native woman, on his invention of a new religion, and on the complex interrelationship between the Hemingways, their camp servants, and the locals. It was a melancholy time when the future of a beautiful wild country, its game, and its unique tribal cultures was in jeopardy from colonial "white" influences, the spread of Islam, and the policies of corrupt native officials. It was a perilous time when the Mau-Mau rebellion swept Kenya—a fanatical movement which, had it been joined by the Kamba tribe befriended by the Hemingways, would certainly have caused their deaths.
I enjoyed this book in its audio format, narrated by actor Brian Dennehy, during a week's worth of two-hour daily commutes. Dennehy's voice is not only easy on the ears but also very well suited to the character Hemingway crafts about himself. It is also the voice of a surprisingly cultured and linguistically gifted reader, who carries off a script liberally mined with Kiswahili vocables, to say nothing of entire sentences in French. Where Boyd Gaines (in reading Death in the Afternoon) sometimes forgot himself and went on in a Spanish accent for whole paragraphs of Hemingway-as-Hemingway, Dennehy never broke character until I almost believed I was listening to Hemingway's own voice. The CD also includes a track of Patrick Hemingway reading his own foreword to the book, which leads to such reflections as, "If his Dad sounded like that, he owes Brian Dennehy big-time."
My only complaint is that the crucial CD, in which Mary's lion hunt comes to its climax, was scratched and full of skips. I guess I'll have to read the hard copy next time. I'm almost certain there will be a next time, because in spite of its debatably dubious pedigree and lukewarm critical reception, I found this book to be classic Hemingway: steeped in the enchantment of an exotic world and of a rare, dangerous, and dying way of life, it preserves that moment, and that place, with a clarity so amazing that it makes art seem easy, genius a day's work, and a tedious stretch of highway a place of wonderful significance.
St. Louis, USA
Recommended Age: 14+
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