The Snows Of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway
I first read Ernest Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro as part of the prescribed text for Literature when I was in Secondary Three (or Grade Nine). It did not leave much of an impression; after the exams, I only remembered it vaguely as being about death, and symbols of death that were apparently significant.
Reading the short story again today, I have not been able to stop thinking about it.
Harry, a writer, is dying; gangrene is rotting away his leg. He has been on safari in Africa with his wife.
Their truck has broken down. And as the woman keeps up optimism a rescue plane will soon arrive, the man lays in his cot, acutely conscious of the “evil-smelling emptiness” of lurking death.
The 27-page story takes its title from a prologue that introduces snow-covered Kilimanjaro it says might be the highest mountain in Africa. We are also told that close to the western summit — known as the House of God— is the (unexplained) frozen carcass of a leopard.
Against this backdrop of grimness and mystique, the story unfolds not only as a meditation on death and its unexpected call but, more unforgettably, as a ponderous rumination on life’s regrets.
Harry, acknowledging his own writerly talent, recounts how he had made through life not by writing, but by repeatedly marrying into wealth.
In almost commercial parlance, he tells of his quid pro quo relationship with his present wife: Helen is an immensely rich middle-aged widow who, after a series of lovers, wanted a new life; “she liked what he wrote” and had gone on to “acquire” him — and with that a way of living — “while he had traded away what remained of his old life, for security, for comfort too, there was no denying that…”
Written in a clear third person voice, Harry’s end of life reflections and present-day interactions with Helen are interwoven with memory sequences that Hemingway crafts as a series of stream-on consciousness.
With run-on sentences suggesting the dying man’s delirium, Harry recollects what Hemingway scholars have believed to be hugely autobiographical of the author’s own life.
We read about the writer’s debauchery with prostitutes while pining for a lover in New York whom his wife in Paris came close to discovering, about his fleeing from Turkish soldiers, skiing in Austria, and how he gave a wounded officer all the morphine tablets he had saved for himself.
And each time, Harry laments about not having written any of it. Or of the life of the well-heeled. Or of the quarrels he had with women he loved and did not love.
Hemingway has a way of not only making wry observations — how when one did not love a woman at all and lied to her, “that he [was] able to give more for her money than when he had really loved” — he makes the reader reach deep into and reflect on their own experience.
While Harry is keen to blame Helen for destroying his talent, he concedes he has only himself to blame, “by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions…by sloth…by snobbery…”
Subtly, Hemingway (through his central character) points out the paradox of poverty in wealth, and wealth in poverty: as Harry recalls his most fulfilling days as a poor writer in Paris, he realises that when he’s living most comfortably, materially, his life “was [already] over” but “he went on living it again…”
Many times, I found myself sitting up to read and re-read the iconic author’s marvellous use of similes: the protagonist had intended the African safari as an attempt to start his writing again; “there was no luxury and he had thought…that in some way he could work the fat off his soul the way a fighter went into the mountains to work and train in order to burn it out of his body.”
As Harry recognises and wrestles with the looming shadow of death, a profound desire to write all that he never wrote builds up inside him. “You can’t take dictation, can you?” he asks Helen.
In his inimitable style, Hemingway weaves exquisite symbols through what has been referred to as the best short story he ever wrote. From the last vestiges of my literature class, I seem to recollect that the hyenas prowling about the couple’s camp forebode death while the frozen carcass of the leopard is emblematic of immortality. And while the low-lying plains where they are marooned connotes darkness and regrets, the mountain of Kilimanjaro conveys purity and goodness.
Whether Harry’s final spiritual ascent to the snowy peaks of Kilimanjaro represents redemption in his after-life is unclear. What is clear is how a writer withers away and dies viscerally when his writing stops. Here, we see a writer’s struggle, even when he is physically dying, to write (if not on paper, then in his mind). And live.
I wish I had been more attentive in class those many years ago; I could have benefited a lot more than I did.