In Havana

By Gary Indiana

The ghost of Ernest Hemingway would like to haunt the isle of Cuba. In Miramar there is the Hemingway Marina. Several bars and hotels in Havana Viejo display portraits of Hemingway in various heroic poses on their walls. A famous Hemingway daiquiri is served in many places. The flea market stalls in the Parque Cespedes have always sold disintegrating paperbacks of Adios a las Armas and El Viejo y el Mar, and sometimes books by Hemingway in English, in all the years I have come here.

Most Cubans have never read Hemingway and never will. In fact most Cubans have no idea who Hemingway was, and only recognize the name as that of the marina, or, in some cases, the famous daiquiri. The myth of Ernest Hemingway as a Cuban national idol has not enjoyed much traction since the very early 1960s, when Ernest Hemingway and Fidel Castro were often photographed smoking cigars together or sharing a comradely embrace.

Now that Norman Mailer has joined the shades of ancient evenings, the only American writer who still carries a torch for Ernest Hemingway is Joan Didion, upon whom the influence of Hemingway has not been entirely wonderful. The irksome repetitions and overly precious one-line paragraphs in Didion come directly out of Hemingway and the pregnant white space he famously left around his sentences. The tough, laconic, manly men who serve as fantasy heroes in Didion’s fiction have the unmistakable Hemingway touch. So do the shrieking pansies and suicidal homos she scatters through her books for spice, like pineapple rings on a Christmas ham. If Didion did not have the mind of a steel trap up her sleeve, she would be Ernest Hemingway, much to the detriment of American letters.

Hemingway and Marilyn Monroe are often thought of in the same breath, so to speak. They reached their zenith of celebrity and committed suicide around the same time. They embodied certain fantasies and gender stereotypes rampant in the 1950s. Yet we still love Marilyn, whose genius on the screen is there to see, and her sad private story continues to move us, even when recounted by a twaddle factory in Princeton, New Jersey. Hemingway we love considerably less. His genius on the page seems ever more indiscernible, as he moves ever closer to the realm of antiquary curiosity where Fannie Hurst and thousands of hula hoops have gathered dust for half a century.

How did it happen? Why why why did the creator of Lady Brett Ashley and Jake with the missing testicle sink so precipitously in our regard? Hemingway was a lousy writer. A phony writer. A writer whose books are a tissue of falsehoods and moronic clichés of masculinity. A mendacious, ridiculous, deluded buffoon of a writer intoxicated by fame to the point of writing drivel. A malicious, unscrupulous, pig-headed bully who stole every good idea he ever had from his betters and turned those ideas into banalities. A Harlequin romance novelist masquerading as a pioneer of literary modernism.

But none of that has ever tarnished the esteem enjoyed by other male, heterosexual, American writers of Hemingway’s vintage or Hemingway’s sensibility in such a dramatic way. Scott Fitzgerald may not have been as big a prick as Hemingway (literally, if Hemingway himself can be believed, and he can’t), but his books are even worse than Hemingway’s, including The Great Gatsby, which is often mistaken for a great novel because it can be read in a few hours and its characters are rich people who come to a bad end. Even Charles Bukowski hasn’t yet diminished in his influence, and his books are—there is no polite way of saying it—shit. As for today’s standard-bearers of normal love and the arduous quest involved in becoming a man, they are but pale suburban worms beside the behemoth of snowy Kilamanjaro.

Perhaps it’s because time has peeled away the testosterone facial mask of this endlessly posturing, preening, pathetic cheerleader of the bullring and killer of elephants and tigers, revealing a callow sissy whom his transgendered son didn’t hesitate to address as “her.” Perhaps it’s because white space so readily suggests an absence of mental activity instead of a plenum of immanent meaning. Perhaps it’s simply the fact that daiquiris have gone out of fashion.

But before we dump his collected writings into the marina with which he is so often confused, bidding good riddance to once-sacred rubbish and forget about Hemingway altogether, let’s remember that Hemingway left a sizeable chunk of his fortune to his many cats and their successive offspring, who still enjoy a life of feline luxury in Florida. So Papa wasn’t all bad after all. Meow!

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