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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 344

Although the book is a novel, Ernest Hemingway established the paradox that he was writing “an absolutely true book” as an experiment to see how it might “compete with a work of the imagination.” While much of the information is directly taken from his experiences on a two-month East African...

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Although the book is a novel, Ernest Hemingway established the paradox that he was writing “an absolutely true book” as an experiment to see how it might “compete with a work of the imagination.” While much of the information is directly taken from his experiences on a two-month East African safari in 1933–1934, the author changed peoples’ names and created composite characters based on several people. He also elaborated on relationships between characters, invented dialogue, and probably altered the events.

Indicating his multiple purposes for writing the book, Hemingway organized it into four sections, each beginning with with the word Pursuit: “Pursuit and Conversation,” “Pursuit Remembered,” “Pursuit and Failure,” and “Pursuit as Happiness.” While one kind of pursuit is obviously going after the targeted animals, which he often succeeds in killing, the other types are more abstract or symbolic of other facets of his life.

The novel’s main characters include Pauline Pfeiffer Hemingway, Hemingway's wife, whom he refers as Poor Old Mama (abbreviated POM). Those to whom he assigns pseudonyms are his friend Charles Thompson, called Karl Kabor; an English hunter, Philip Percival, variously called Pop or Jackson Phillips; and the Austrian Hans Koritschoner, called Kandisky. For some of the African people, he provides actual names, such as the gun-bearer M’Cola, the driver Kamau, and several trackers. While a few emerge as three-dimensional characters, Hemingway tends to refer to them by occupation and in relation to himself, such as “my tracker.”

As a safari narrative, the book includes numerous stories about tracking animals and killing them, which Hemingway enjoyed, and skinning and cutting them up, which he tends to leave to the others. In addition, the book includes a huge amount of description of the luscious African landscape, which Hemingway deeply revered. It is also an extended meditation on the writer’s art and craft. Some of the conversations with various characters turn into Hemingway’s extended discourse on the state of literary affairs and the position of the writer, which he sees as conflicting with or damaged by both critics and commercialization.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1738

In his foreword to Green Hills of Africa, Ernest Hemingway says that he is attempting “to write an absolutely true book to see whether the shape of a country and the pattern of a month’s action can, if truly presented, compete with a work of the imagination.” The result is a novelized account of a safari he joined in East Africa from December 8, 1933, to February 17, 1934.

Accompanying Hemingway were his wife Pauline Pfeiffer Hemingway (called P.O.M., meaning Poor Old Mama), a friend from Key West, Florida, named Charles Thompson (Karl Kabor in the book), a well-respected professional British hunter, Philip Percival (called Pop, Jackson Phillips, and Mr. J. P.), and a visitor named Kandisky (really Hans Koritschoner, an Austrian-born businessman in Africa). Hemingway also hired many natives for various chores. The real names of several are given, including M’Cola (his gun-bearer), Kamau (his driver), and the trackers Abdullah, Charo, and Molo; some of the less important natives are nicknamed Droopy, David Garrick, and the Roman. One heroic Masai is simply called “the old man.” In mid-January, Hemingway suffered an attack of dysentery and was rushed for medical treatment to Arusha in northeast Tanganyika and to Nairobi, Kenya, after which he rejoined the safari. In his book, which begins after his return from Nairobi, he incorporates a few events that occurred while he was hunting in the Serengeti Plain of northwest Tanganyika in December, 1933, and early January, 1934. Interrupting his narration are many insights concerning writers and the art of writing. Green Hills of Africa thus combines a report about hunters in competitive quest of big game, subjective thoughts on literature, and Hemingway’s conscious and unconscious self-revelations.

The structure of Green Hills of Africa is complex, perhaps unnecessarily so. It is in four parts: “Pursuit and Conversation,” “Pursuit Remembered,” “Pursuit and Failure,” and “Pursuit as Happiness.” Hemingway thus is in pursuit of big game, knowledge of literature, and his own identity. The part about failure is the shortest; the part about remembrance is the longest. The section about conversation, mostly literary in nature, is shorter than that about happiness, which mainly concerns a successful hunt in an unspoiled area. However, Hemingway complicates matters. Parts 1 and 3 are mostly in dialogue and mainly concern past action. Parts 2 and 4 stress action and feature the competition of Hemingway and Karl. Furthermore, in part 2, Hemingway recalls events that occurred earlier than the “present,” while part 4 begins abruptly in that present, retrogresses, and concludes later in Haifa, far to the north. Since the action, whether past or present, is exciting, the reader is not distressed by time shifts, which actually increase the suspense.

The story starts when Kandisky’s truck splutters along a nearby road, sends potential animal targets skittering away, stalls, and must be fixed on the spot. Learning Hemingway’s identity, Kandisky, who bravely calls hunting “silly,” encourages his host to discuss writers instead. Hemingway opines that all American literature begins with Mark Twain and his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). He also avers that Edgar Allan Poe’s works are skillfully constructed but are “dead,” waxes negative about Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau (who he claims cannot read), and John Greenleaf Whittier, but praises Henry James and Stephen Crane. He complains that American writers are regularly destroyed by economics, politics, critics, drink, women, money, and ambition. Hemingway says that wartime experiences can help writers, praises Gustave Flaubert and Rudyard Kipling, and suggests that hunting and writing are equally valid artistic endeavors. He recalls drinking heavily with James Joyce in Paris, just before setting out for Africa. He gratuitously criticizes Gertrude Stein, though without naming her, for copying his dialogue writing technique and for being “jealous and malicious.” He says that a great writer must have talent, discipline, intelligence, disinterestedness, and a firm conscience. He must also be fortunate enough to survive, and he must accept loneliness and ignore criticism.

Interest mounts when Hemingway astutely prepares the reader for the hunt, kudu and sable being the main targets, by reminiscing about past hunts. He immodestly recalls having killed a rhinoceros at three hundred yards but then adds that Karl, repeatedly labeled “lucky,” killed a larger one. Hemingway got over an admittedly idiotic fit of jealousy by reading Leo Tolstoy. The group entered the Rift Valley, shot a few zebras for hides as gifts for friends at home, killed some teal for food, and penetrated a new region, which reminded Hemingway of Spain. His free-associating mind skips from topic to topic: the pain flies can inflict on horses, his own pain when he broke his right arm, the pain he has caused animals when wounding them instead of killing them “cleanly,” and the expectation that he himself will die violently in due time.

Then, in the exact middle of the book, Hemingway offers the most graphic figure of speech he ever created. It concerns the Gulf Stream (a metaphor for nature), into which garbage is dumped by humans from a “high-piled scow” (civilization). The “ill-smelling . . . load”—disgustingly specified as palm fronds, corks and bottles, dead cats and rats and dogs, deflated condoms, and light bulbs, among other things—pollutes, but only temporarily, the “one single, lasting thing—the stream.” Significantly, he says that a true work of art is almost as lasting as that stream.

Chapter 10 returns the reader to the present, with these introductory words: “That all seemed a year ago. Now, this afternoon in the car. . . .” The final shoot begins miserably, with time growing perilously short. Rain has spoiled a salt lick where they might have ambushed some game. Furthermore, a native, ridiculed in Swahili as shenzi (crazy), has also spooked a herd of kudu with ineffective bow-and-arrow hunting. Hemingway is furious with M’Cola for neglecting a direct order to clean and oil his Springfield rifle but is soon ecstatic when a strange and aged native reports a kudu herd, though it is at some distance from them. Hemingway quickly gathers a team of his natives, loads the car with petrol cans, drafts more help at an intriguing Masai village along the way, and in time enters an unhunted, uniquely lovely region more than fifty miles from camp. There, at last, in the climax of the book, he encounters success, shooting an enormous kudu, but he also experiences failure, killing a proscribed female sable but only wounding an elusive sable bull, whose spoor Hemingway and M’Cola follow under a murderously hot sun without seeing the pain-racked creature again.

A month later, Hemingway, Karl, Karl’s wife, and P.O.M. are eating lunch and drinking wine in Haifa as they idly look at loons on the Sea of Galilee. When P.O.M. laments that her memories of the trip are already dimming, Hemingway valiantly promises to write about it all “some time.”

Green Hills of Africa is an exemplary book in a tradition of “true” narratives as exciting as fiction. Examples include Richard Henry Dana, Jr.’s Two Years Before the Mast (1840), Francis Parkman’s The California and Oregon Trail (1849), Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), and Mark Twain’s Roughing It (1872). In each, the writer’s self-revelations are as interesting as the sometimes ephemeral items mentioned along the story line. In Green Hills of Africa, Hemingway exposes himself more than he usually does when he describes urinating under the Southern Cross one long alcoholic night. He boasts about his marksmanship, his ability to track animals whether wounded or otherwise, his indifference to pains caused by long treks and little sleep (on occasion he reads while his companions nap), his drinking prowess, his wide-ranging knowledge of literature, and his facile handling of Swahili. He undercuts this immense braggadocio rather too little by calling himself names every so often. He demeans his wife Pauline by calling her “girl” when he does not refer to her as P.O.M., by ostentatiously letting her shoot first at a lion and then asserting that she killed it when everyone knows she missed, by ordering her to stay behind to avoid dangers the men stalwartly confront, and by only recording her comments on one book. He praises a pretty native woman for being “very wifely” but then undresses her with his lecherous eyes. More general disrespect for women surfaces when he labels male American writers Old Mother Hubbards and female ones “Joan of Arc without the fighting.”

Hemingway had the professional writer’s recording eye and ear. He could remember every detail of sights seen. His verbal pictures of ranges of hills resemble multiplaned, subtly colored impressionistic paintings. He is swept up in an almost orgasmic love for the virginal aspects of the final hunting locale, is sad to realize that humankind soon exploits every new “country,” but conveniently rationalizes his orgy of killing on the grounds that he is only hastening the work of rampant death in these teeming jungles. If so, he does not explain his manifest delight in watching a hyena that has been shot in the belly chew out and eat its own intestines in agony. In his lengthy description of the event, he calls the hyena “a dirty joke.” While stalking a variety of animals, he takes note of their alertness, colors, markings, gaits, and “electric speed.” In addition to describing nonhuman sounds, notably the lion’s low-pitched cough, he could also repeat conversations with friends verbatim. (Percival later affirmed that Hemingway accurately quoted him word for word.)

Although Green Hills of Africa is a significant record of an important episode in the career of a world-famous author, it is not great art. It does not inculcate an admirable way of life, nor does it hold up a steady mirror to its times. Several contemporary reviewers criticized Hemingway for ignoring the ominous economic conditions of his own country in the 1930’s, for his self-indulgence, and for writing about gory slaughter on a remote continent. The book does, however, have aesthetic balance and reveals much about its author. Furthermore, Hemingway’s safari inspired two of his finest short stories: “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” (both 1936). The former resulted from his dysentery and his plane flight to Nairobi for treatment. The latter takes place on a safari resembling Hemingway’s own, and its three central characters are distorted echoes of Hemingway, his wife, and their British guide. The events related in Green Hills of Africa made both stories possible.

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