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Hemingway in Africa: The Last Safari

by Christopher Ondaatje

Ernest Hemingway made two game-hunting safaris in Africa, both through Kenya, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), and Uganda. The first was in 1933, the second 1953. For Hemingway in Africa, Christopher Ondaatje made a single photographic safari, following as closely as possible in Hemingway’s tracks, to try to understand the author’s “strange and profound affection for Africa.”

Employing copious photographs, a number of interviews, and a multitude of texts, Ondaatje paints a competent, plausible, and likely highly accurate double-portrait of Hemingway, one part for each safari. In the first, we see the infamous, strutting megalomaniacal Hemingway, approaching the peak of his creative powers, highly competitive and obsessed with “manliness.” In the second, we see “Papa” Hemingway, mellowed, less macho, unconcerned with “the kill,” and addled by fame and alcoholism.

There’s not much here that hasn’t been said before, much by Hemingway himself. Ondaatje is at his best when giving an overview of Hemingway’s relationships with his African-based peers, such as Karen Blixen and the “white hunter” Philip Percival. His contrasting of the two originial safaris is at times insightful, particularly as he details the older Hemingway’s late-learned compassion for animals and post-colonial Africa.

Unfortunately, Ondaatje tries to graft these portraits onto Hemingway’s art. He repeatedly makes the grievous error of hunting through Hemingway’s fiction for autobiography. This is dangerous ground. Certainly all art is somewhat autobiographical, but need it really be said that with a writer of Hemingway’s immense talent and control it is nearly impossible to tell where the autobiography stops and the fiction starts?

In the end, Ondaatje offers the rather mild conclusion that, for Hemingway, Africa “was like a crucible in which a new life could be minted.” In other words, the young Hemingway could embolden his macho image and the older could escape it. No one before, we are told, has followed Hemingway’s African safaris so closely, with a critical eye. This is a valuable first foray, opening a route along which future scholars might make more penetrating explorations.