Spencer Tracy’s rendition of Santiago in the title role in the 1958 film won him an Oscar. I confess, it was the film that I saw first as a young man. Not until college did I read the short book.
I memorized portions of the story for a presentation to illustrate my professor's premise that words "have muscles," and when read aloud (as the dialogue of this particular book was clearly meant to be) it is impossible to tell the story of Santiago’s struggle without feeling the teeth-gritting strain of the narrator’s voice. (View this full-version of the film beginning at 52:30.) You can feel the pain in his bleeding hands, the ache of his shoulder, the hunger in his belly, and the genuine affection in his heart as you hear the old man speaking aloud in the open sea.
I first studied Hemingway’s kinesthetic language about thirty-five years ago, but on occasion the portions I memorized come back to me the same way hundreds of King James verses flit in and out of my mind when their meaning is most needed. I don’t mean to equate Hemingway with scripture but both have been etched in my memory far better than the facts and figures of more recent years.
So why would those lines come to mind here in Cabo San Lucas? Two reasons really. The first is simply visual.
The landscape and the sea I’ve seen every day seem to fit the description of Hemingway’s village in 1951. The old man’s sea was the Gulf of Mexico of the shore of Cuba (about a decade before the revolution). The island of Cuba and the cape of the Baja Peninsula are as far apart as the California and Florida, but the look of the fishing village and the simple hard-working people that lived there circa 1950 seem mirror images. Cabo San Lucas was a desolate place when Hemingway wrote his last great work. It was a fishing village with shacks much like those on the book jacket above. Hemingway mentions a shark factory in his opening pages, and Cabo has the remnants of a tuna factory just where the east beach of the cape juts east and runs about a half mile to “Arch of San Lucas.”
Once tourism became the goal, the large-fish industry gave way to sport fishing only, and besides the smell of a tuna factory does not bring the kind of investment that has changed the landscape of these beaches over the past 50 years. After WWII Bing Crosby and some other California investors built the first “destination” hotel in Los Cabos, but the real development of this ten miles of beach came in the past 20 years. The RIU Palace, where we are staying was built in 2004.
But if a curious eye looks beyond the new construction to the older parts of Cabo San Lucas (down by the marina and the old tuna factory and the remnant of shacks and huts back in the hills) and it is easy to see the similarities between Cabo and Santiago’s village. Even the sand fits the bill. In the opening pages, Hemingway says, “…they went down the trail to the skiff, feeling the pebbled sand under their feet.” The sand in Cabo is very course and pebbly. It’s finer than gravel, but nothing like the fine sand of West Michigan or the beaches I’ve walked on Florida’s gulf coast.
It is easy to imagine, countless skiffs lined the water’s edge just above the line where waves at high tide broke and lapped up the steep sand. In fact, it was only in the past few decades that the low skyline of these hills began to show hotels and resorts. These changes forced the villagers to make a choice between the old ways of their fathers and grandfathers and the new ways of billion-dollar corporations. For thousands of locals it was a simple question: Would you rather catch fish for strangers you will never see or serve fish to an endless stream of tourists you will never see again. And like that, the fishing boats that had sustained this forgotten place for centuries gave way to jet-skis, parasails, and glass-bottom boats.
Still wearing the loose-fitting shirts, pants, and hats as they have for generations, the sons and grandsons of fishermen now walk the beaches selling hand-woven blankets in the heat, silver bracelets for the ladies, and sombreros for the men. The tourists look on from the resort pools and wonder how they can stand there all day in hopes of making a sale to them, but they do this as faithfully as their forebears went out to sea for the catch of the day.
So the first reason this book came to mind was the sights around me and the constant chatter of Hispanic dialogue one hears at every turn in Los Cabos. The other reason is much more personal.
As I said in the opening line of this post The old man has gone 84 days without a catch. On the 85th day, he goes far out, further than ever before and he catches the fish of his prayers. Turns out to be an 18' Marlin and the main part of the story—the kinesthetic part I spoke of—is about his struggle to catch this great fish. As we prepare to head back to Michigan from this wonderful Mexican getaway, I sense that the 85th day is at hand, and I pray for a different ending if it is God’s will.