Looking for Papa in Cuba

September 29, 2006

Huw Richards meets a scholar who is pursuing international connections that he considers vital to comprehending the work of Ernest Hemingway.

Few writers have a clearer image than Ernest Hemingway as the epitome of literary machismo - sportsman, fisherman and womaniser. But that is only part of the story, and far from the most interesting or important part, argues Phil Melling, professor of American studies at Swansea University. His quest for a more-rounded interpretation of Hemingway has taken him to Cuba to pursue connections that he believes are fundamental to understanding the writer.

"Hemingway lived in Cuba for 30 years. It was the largest single influence on his life, and he loved it with a passion. He went back after the revolution, was met at the airport by Fidel Castro and told him: 'I support the revolution. I am not a Yankee.' He died not long after leaving Cuba - he could not live without it."

Melling's own visits to the island over the past few years have been both a return to earlier interests - his doctorate was on US literature in the 1930s - and a form of academic therapy after spending much of the 1990s studying the cultural roots of fundamentalism in the US. "I waded through huge amounts of insane, paranoid claptrap. Fundamentalists manage to be both anti-intellectual and voracious readers - they need a road map to the Apocalypse. After years of this, I needed to decompress and go back to reading for enjoyment, and that took me back to Hemingway."

Cuba retains huge amounts of Hemingway material, both artefacts and memory. The Museo Hemingway maintains the writer's house in San Francisco de Paula, on the edge of Havana, pretty much as he left it, although it is now being restored. "Hemingway refused to have the roots of the trees cut, and they have undermined the floors of the house," Melling explains.

In the controlled literary market that exists under Castro, Hemingway is the third most read author, behind only the national hero José Mart! and Cervantes.

Politics and trade embargoes have, Melling argues, stopped US scholars studying this fundamental element in the life of a great American writer.

Not least of the Cuban influences was the Afro-Caribbean religion of Santeria, "a syncretistic, still-living faith that developed when slaves covertly worshipped their own saints in the guise of Roman Catholicism," explains Melling, who found its syncretism and openness refreshing after immersion in US fundamentalism.

He has no doubt of its importance and interest for Hemingway. "Much of its focus and many of its orishas - the equivalent of saints - are concerned with the sea, and Hemingway was a devout fisherman. He wrote to friends asking for books on 'witchcraft', and his house was full of objects of Santeria. He carried stones, which are a means of getting in touch with your orisha, in his pockets."

Melling points to Hemingway's early fascination with Native Americans. "He was fascinated by tribalism and tribal customs. His interest in Santeria was a stepping stone both to this element in his own past and to his fascination with Africa."

He is rereading Hemingway in the light of these insights. "You have to look at the state of mind created by these interests. In Santeria, the sea is a sanctuary, a sacred place. If you don't have that spiritual awareness, and you regard the sea as simply a commodity that can produce wealth for you, like the Old Man in The Old Man and the Sea , then you will be destroyed."

Hemingway's own reading is of equal significance. "He had a fantastic library of 8,000 to 10,000 volumes. He was a reader far more than he was a fisherman, a womaniser or a sportsman, well read in anthropology, sociology, engineering and history as well as the subjects you might expect."

Those books remain intact but largely untouched in the museum. It is tantalising to imagine what might be learnt from a close examination of Hemingway's annotations, but although the museum is open to visitors, the books remain out of reach - the curators fearful of both damage and theft.

A tranche of Hemingway letters found in the museum is, however, due to be released to the city of Boston's John F. Kennedy Library.

Access to sources is carefully controlled, with Gladys Rodriguez, a former director of the museum, a renowned scholar in her own right and member of Castro's circle, being the key gatekeeper. Melling is aware that an interest in Santeria deviates from the party line. "Castro is seen as a revolutionary and a campaigner against the dictator Batista. Santeria complicates this, particularly since Batista was a practitioner."

He explains that working in Cuba can be by turns frustrating and inspiring. "You have to be very patient. There are long periods without communication, and you frequently don't get what you have asked for. Against that you may suddenly be offered something you didn't ask for - we simply don't know what is there."

Melling was, for instance, unaware of the existence of Osmar Marino Rodriguez until the Cuban scholar pitched up at his hotel with a copy of his book on Hemingway and sport, packed with previously unknown material, and started a fruitful exchange of ideas and insights.

"The important thing is not to get discouraged and disappointed, but follow whatever leads you get," he says.

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