Ernesto: The Untold Story of Hemingway in Revolutionary Cuba
By Andrew Feldman
Melville House, 2019
A month after Ernest Hemingway killed himself in Ketchum, Idaho in July of 1961, Cuba generalissimo Fidel Castro visited the author’s widow at Finca Vigia and climbed to Hemingway’s writing tower with its view of hills and palm trees. Later, when he was asked why his Cuban government had so faithfully preserved the whole property, Castro affected bemusement: “I think we would have been savages if we did not recognize the importance of preserving this place,” he said. “We do not deserve the recognition; we simply behaved in a civilized fashion.” The quote appears in 2003’s Hemingway in Cuba, written by Carlene Brennen and the author’s niece, and it’s dutifully reproduced in Andrew Feldman’s Ernesto: The Untold Story of Hemingway in Revolutionary Cuba.
Castro professed to love Hemingway’s novels, but whether or not that’s believable, he certainly understood the intellectual cache of playing host to the world-famous author’s mausoleum-cum-museum, renamed Museo Hemingway in 1962 and a key part of Cuba’s booming Hemingway business ever since. Hemingway moved to Cuba in 1939 and stayed there intermittently for two decades; he called himself an ordinary Cuban when he won the Nobel Prize; he gave the prize to the Cuban people. And his fishing exploits and swaggering tall tales formed the potting soil for the perennial crop of Hemingway bull-hockey that’s bloomed from Bimini to Cojimar ever since.
That story has been told before, and not only in Hemingway in Cuba. Hemingway’s best biographer, Carlos Baker, covers the Cuba years in eloquent detail, and Cuban writer Norberto Fuentes recounted the story elaborately in his 1984 book likewise titled Hemingway in Cuba. Feldman himself was the first North American writer allowed to study in residence at the Finca Vigia Museum, and he believes his researches have uncovered “a completely different Hemingway” from the image of “an expatriate American writer who did not associate with the Cuban people.” And indeed Feldman’s book goes into greater detail than any previous book in describing some of those Cubans, most notably Leopoldina Rodriguez, “not only Hemingway’s longtime friend, confidant, and - in all likelihood - lover, but ... also an important influence in his life and on Islands in the Stream and even The Old Man and the Sea” and a probable model for Lil in Islands in the Stream.
Nevertheless, for all its panache and Cuban flavor, Ernesto doesn’t in the main tell an “untold story.” Much like the masterpieces of its subject, the book succeeds despite its own grand intentions. That Hemingway was not simply an expatriate American writer who never associated with the Cuban people is a story that’s been told many times, not least by his wife Mary back in 1976, but in the course of covering telling that story again, Feldman works the minor miracle of making everything about this period of Hemingway’s life seem fresh and invigoratingly interesting.
We get the blustering Hemingway, reacting to Charles Scribner’s appreciation for an early draft of The Old Man and the Sea with an arrogance only barely tempered with faux jocularity. “I was very happy you liked what you read of the book. (The end.),” he writes. “But I would have thought you a certifiable fool if you had not (he says cheerfully). There is never any doubt when something is right. But it makes you very happy to have someone you like and respect say so.”
And we of course get the patented Hemingway Hooey, in this case as in so many cases perfectly encapsulated in George Plimpton’s absurd Paris Review interview, when Plimpton asks the Master about how he works his magic and gets a face full of pure unadulterated nonsense:
“I write every morning as soon after first light ... There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice.”
Through it all, Finca Vigia “still offered a refuge where most days it was possible to focus on one’s work, to recover one’s health, and live a comfortable life,” but Feldman does a very moving job of portraying his hero’s shrinking world. As his book’s subtitle indicates, Cuba itself was changing, awakening from the sleepy idyll during which Hemingway had come to know it and rapidly moving in darker and uglier directions that he couldn’t ignore. Feldman is consistently excellent on this heading:
Through the narrative of his manuscript of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway was studying regret, hunger, memory, evil, and the ephemerality of human paradise - clearly inspired by the paradise disappearing around him. Alternately in another manuscript, The Garden of Eden, he was chasing similar themes, concurrently developing similar characters, sunning, swimming, and riding three bicycles in Le Grau-du-Roi, Aigues-Mortes, Camargue, and Hendaye - drinking aperitifs in the Gulf of Lions - romantic settings as incorruptible as the steep blue slopes of Cayo Paraiso or the unending sky of mighty Africa. As dusk set on his life and confusion set in, he painted the world in Impressionist watercolors as natural and enchanting and bewildering as his youth. The themes of the story were insatiable hunger, androgyny, adultery, his writing, and the destruction of paradise.
Ernesto ends in the only way it can, with dusk and confusion strangling the entire story as it always does in Hemingway biographies. But Andrew Feldman has here shaped his sources into that rarest of all things: a Hemingway who feels like a new acquaintance. The stresses fall on different places, the shadings feel more exotic, and the author’s narration of the Cuban Revolution is every bit as involving as his portrait of its most famous onlooker.
—Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, The Washington Post, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.