It was two and a half years ago that I first heard of this short story by Ernest Hemingway – while sitting an important exam, as a matter of fact. Trying to render Hemingway’s unique style in French is hardly a therapeutic experience, yet something about the excerpt (or perhaps it was simply the evocative beauty of the story’s title) stayed with me long afterwards and I found myself asking for it for Christmas this year. I am not a big fan of the short story genre, preferring the novel, with its slow developing of characters and its progressive unraveling of plot. There is something about the way many short stories end, stopping abruptly in the middle of a scene, or trailing away into supposedly meaningful nothingness, which just annoys me. “Pointless” is inevitably the word foremost in my mind at such times, which would no doubt enrage the venerable writers, but I am not overly fond of opaque meanings that make me feel stupid. This story, however, is different.
The scene, as can be guessed from the title, is set in Kenya. The main character is Harry, a writer, a typical product of the post-war “Lost Generation”, who would have fitted in perfectly with the hard-drinking disillusioned crowd Hemingway himself frequented at the Café des Deux Magots. With him is a woman, American, wealthy, middle-aged, attractive, and in love with him. Her name, Helen, is mentioned only at the very end of the story. The rest of the time, she is referred to simply as “the woman” – once, as “this rich bitch” – and Harry’s hostility towards her is pervasive.
The story starts with a brief italicized description of Kilimanjaro: height, importance in Africa, etc. It sounds like an entry in an atlas or encyclopedia. Then, we are told that the western summit was named “Ngàje Ngài” by the Masai, “The House of God”, and instantly, we find ourselves in the realm of African folklore and Kipling-esque tales. Close to this summit, Hemingway tells us, lies the frozen carcass of a leopard, whose presence at that altitude remains a mystery. The reader – poor fool – finds himself expecting to read about the leopard and its journey to “The House of God”. So it comes as quite a shock when the story proper, shifting to dialogue, opens with the following disturbing sentence: “’The marvelous thing is that it’s painless,’ he said. ‘That’s how you know when it starts.’”
Gradually, we discover that Harry and Helen are on safari, and that Harry, crawling through thorn bushes two weeks previously to photograph a herd of waterbuck, got a scratch on his knee which has since turned gangrenous. When their truck breaks down, they are reduced to waiting for a plane to fly over and see them. As Harry lies on a cot in the shade of a tree, he watches as vultures gather around the campsite, and hears the hyena’s laugh grow louder as the hours slip by and the gangrene eats away at his life. He knows death is the inevitable outcome as surely as does the reader. His waking moments are spent bickering with “the woman”: callously, cruelly even, he torments her, while alternately she tries to soothe him or reproaches him. But he refuses to stop, telling her: “We quarrel and that makes the time pass.” – an unsettling premonition of Vladimir and Estragon’s exchanges in Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”.
In the intervals between sleep and wakefulness, memories of Harry’s past flit through his brain, gradually taking on more reality than his surroundings as delirium sets in. Memories of Christmas in Austria, of work on a ranch in the States, of life in the Latin Quarter in Paris, and most of all, of World War One. Horror and an overwhelming feeling of failure seep into everything: the pristine snow in Austria is marred by the bloody footprints of a deserter hounded by the gendarmes; Paris becomes the scene of the sordid break-up of his marriage; in Constantinople, a dance turns into a violent fist-fight over “a hot American slut”; and in the shortest but most horrible memory of all, bombing officer Williamson gets blown up by a German stick bomb and screams at Harry to shoot him. The gangrenous leg can thus be seen as a metaphor for a life blasted by war and left to limp along in the ensuing years without faith, hope, or innocence.
It is with the most heartfelt relief that we see the long-awaited plane finally arrive, Harry painstakingly installed in it, and the pilot take off. This is the most lyrical passage of the story, as we are treated to a scene that immediately conjures up the unforgettable views in Sydney Pollack’s “Out of Africa”, and Dennis Finch-Hatton and Karen Blixen flying over Kenya’s brown plains and green forests, its game trails and waterholes, and its herds of zebra and wildebeest. When the plane emerges from a rain storm, Harry suddenly sees the top of Kilimanjaro, “as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun”. He has reached “the House of God”. Of course, all this is too good to be true, and it is with no surprise – but deep admiration for the perfection of the story’s structure – that we behold Helen wake up in the middle of the night to a particularly loud laugh from the hyena and realize that Harry is dead.
© Florence Berlioz 2011