The Green Hills of Africa is Hemingway’s non-fiction account of his hunting expedition in Africa.
I should perhaps preface this by stating that Hemingway’s final nonfiction work A Moveable Feast is one of my favorite books of all time. In fact I am a huge fan of Hemingway’s work in general and I don’t think that there’s any question that he is one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. I’ve looked forward to reading The Green Hills of Africa since reading On the Road where some character passionately argues that it is Hemingway’s best work (at least that’s how I remember it 8 years later). With all of that said though, I really could never get into the book.
That isn’t to say of course that the book is missing the elements that I love in a Hemingway story. The writing style that he was so famous for is still present with every word holding real meaning. I can’t think of any other author able to say so much with so little; to create a story that just emanates complete control of the English language. And much like his other nonfiction works, Hemingway is willing to be completely honest about himself to the reader. He realizes that he can be petty, a braggart and prone to fits of anger which he takes out on others, but he never tries to gloss over these elements of his personality in order to make a fictional hero version of himself. And, just as he did in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway is able to create a remarkably accurate recreation of the jumbled and tangential nature of the internal thought process without drowning the reader in the nonsense that usually follows stream of consciousness.
Despite all of the aspects that I love about Hemingway’s style and prose, I think that the book was written for a different kind of person from a different time. I’ve never condoned hunting in any form, and the stories that I’ve enjoyed by Hemingway that involve these sorts of things (the bullfighting in The Sun Also Rises for instance) I put up with because they are part of a larger story. This, however, is just an account of hunting exotic animals and the thrill he and his companions get from killing the bigger, stronger and more majestic ones. No matter how vividly or passionately he writes about the excitement of the hunt, I just cannot empathize with the sentiment which leaves the book rather lacking for the bulk of the time. There’s nothing endearing about helping to drive animals to extinction for sport. And while I do appreciate the honest nature of his recounting, it is still unnerving to come across the type of casual racism in the story. When he is in a good mood he has a kind of paternalistic friendship with the locals, and when he’s in a poor mood they are all his servants at best. He clearly never really sees them as capable of the same kind of intelligence his white companions have, and will occasionally let loose disturbing sentiments, calling a native hunter that is joking with him a “black chinaman” and admiring the “niggery legs” of a woman from the local tribe.
Perhaps if the story was about some other topic I would find the whole thing delightful, but there was just too much about it that bothered me to ever really enjoy it fully. Hemingway is an incredible writer, but when some of his darker personal tastes and feelings start to leak into his work it becomes quite off-putting.