A review of True at First Light by Ernest Hemingway, Scriber, NY, 1999.
Everything you wanted to know about a hunting camp on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro in 1953. This fictional memoir as it is described is drawn from the journals of Ernest Hemingway. The material was edited down posthumously by his son Patrick, himself a big game hunter in East Africa. The book was published in 1999 long after Hemingway’s death in 1961. Yet the work harks back accurately to the fifties. It is full of description, dialogue and anecdotes.
There is essentially no plot. The first half of the book revolves around securing a lion for Mary to kill and the second half about preparations for Christmas. There is ongoing dialogue, way too much of it I thought, between Ernest and Mary and amongst others. But that is how the story, such as it is, progresses. You learn that Hemingway drank, slept, ruminated, hunted, bickered with Mary and had eyes for a Kamba girl. You learn that he had – for the era – surprisingly positive relationships with his employees. He treated everyone with dignity and evidently enjoyed real friendships with several. However, he was still the Bwana, the proprietor of the camp and the employer. So, he was apparently loved and respected, but always with a bit of caution. Nonetheless Hemingway sought to ingratiate himself with those around him. He appeared to enjoy the status of being the Bwana without the burden of being a famous writer.
When the journal turns to hunting, it is spot on, obviously based on real encounters and legitimate understanding of the process. Hemingway’s portrayals of the Kamba and Maasai people indicates astute observation and grasp of their respective cultures. The material is occasionally humorous in some overblown descriptions of characters or actions but also in the ongoing joke of Hemingway being central to his own fictitious religion
I happened to be reading this book – that I found in searching a library website – when the PBS series on Hemingway was broadcast. In reality, Hemingway did spend months in Kenya in 1953 running the hunting camp he so ably describes. During this period, his marriage to Mary was in trouble, but there is only a glimmer of that in the book. As part of an effort to salvage it, the two took a small aircraft to see Murchison Falls in Uganda. The plane crashed there as did their rescue plane upon taking off. Hemingway suffered brain injuries that would only manifest themselves over time. To recuperate he installed himself in a fishing lodge at Shimoni on the Kenyan coast where he drank copiously for months. Mary left him.
I doubt if True at First Light adds much to Hemingway’s literary reputation. It is in fact what it purports to be - a fictional memoir. It is kind of interesting, but not gripping. Parts are boring. Only African or Hemingway aficionados will enjoy it.