Second Thoughts: Books, Authors and the Writerly Life
THE SUN takes its time setting over Havana. It lingers, as if unable to leave this city of a certain unreal charm. And when it does finally sink across the blue silver water that stretches to the western horizon, it leaves a telltale point of departure which continues to impart an orange-pink fringe to the low-lying range of clouds.
Shades of the same orange-pink are splashed randomly across the sky, casual farewell strokes by some truly talented artist. As the water changes shades, from a light silvery blue to a serious steel, a group of joyous teenagers who have been jumping repeatedly into the water turn into thoughtful silhouettes, sobered by the celestial play of day turning into night, gradually.
Reluctantly I turn away. A hundred invitations seem to step out of the twilight shadows. A walk along the Malecon, past the entwined couples and the beer drinkers, eyes on the dark ocean, the wind in my face. Surely it would be like so many evenings on the Marine Drive wall, moody and intense, or like a late-night bridge below the Eiffel where conversations ended only to start again and the metro trains crossed over our shoulders in the Parisian night.
Or I could wander along the narrow, sloping cobbled streets of old Havana, weave in and out of its colonnaded corridors, step into sudden serendipitous squares, listen to the jazz band playing on the stoop across the broad-shouldered cathedral, peep into art galleries, private courtyards and mysterious half-open doorways sibilant with whispering possibilities.
Or I could sit in one of the open-air restaurants, listening to the music from the laughing Cuban band and engage in convoluted conversations that may help me understand the complexities of Castro’s Cuba …
But there are other trysts to be kept, a literary pilgrimage to be made. It begins at the El Floridita, an art deco bar and restaurant in old Havana that loudly proclaims itself to be the cradle of the daiquiri.
Ernest Hemingway stayed often at the Hotel Ambos Mundos in the 1930s and was a regular at El Floridita. His full-size statue leans heavily in one corner, its shoulder worn smooth from the number of people who daringly put an arm around Papa for the ritual photograph. The daiquiris are chilled and smooth and it is good to be in that wood-panelled room and peer at the black-and-white photographs, including one of Hemingway and Fidel.
But this is not the only bar he haunted. There is also the La Bodeguita Del Medio, which is smaller, cosier and more musical. It makes its living on the basis of a signed Hemingway certificate: ‘My daiquiri at Floridita, my mojito at Bodeguita.’ The mojitos are made—and drunk—hand over fist and as a glass is jostled, a young woman catches the drops in mid-flight and dabs them, like a precious perfume, in the hollow of her neck.
Partly to keep him away from these bars and partly to get away from a hotel room, Hemingway’s third wife Martha Gellhorn—Scott Fitzgerald had predicted that Ernest would probably need a new wife for each book—followed up a newspaper advertisement and found Finca Vigia, a fifteen-acre quiet farm a few miles out of Havana.
Hemingway did not like what he first saw of the dilapidated colonial house but while he went on a fishing trip, Martha paid up the rent—$100 a month—and the deed was done. He did obviously take to it thereafter and bought it with the money that For Whom the Bells Toll brought him.
It was left to his fourth wife Mary Welsh to convert Finca Vigia into a comfortable home … fruit and vegetable gardens, a well-lit library, a workroom, a sprawling living-room, a swimming pool, a tennis court and a bungalow for his sons and guests.
Today his fishing boat El Pillar that he used for marlin fishing in the Gulf Stream and even fitted with machine guns to hunt German U-boats during the war is on display on the tennis court.
The graves of his four favourite dogs recall the menagerie that Finca Vigia, with its sixty cats, must have once been.
Mary added a tower that had a room with his desk, bookcase, bearskin and large windows with views of Havana where she wanted him to write. He, however, preferred to write standing up early in the morning, on his typewriter placed on a bookshelf in the workroom of the main house.
Besides finishing For Whom the Bells Toll, Hemingway wrote several books here, including Across the River and into the Trees and, most famously, The Old Man and the Sea—the story of a Cuban fisherman’s struggle with a big fish.
It brought him the Nobel prize and he insisted, as the Cubans fondly recall, that when Hollywood make a film, they should include the ordinary people from Cojimar, the little Cuban fishing village that forms the novel’s backdrop.
His other passion seems to have been keeping a watch on his weight: nearly fifteen years of records are scribbled in pencil on the bathroom wall!
After Hemingway committed suicide, Mary carried away about 200 pounds of paper and burnt much more, donating the property to the Cuban people. What remain in the museum are 9,000 books and magazines—including a termite-invaded copy of For Whom the Bells Toll.
Also on view are his shoes, his war correspondent’s jacket (in surprisingly good condition) and the heads of the big game that he hunted, including the giant kudu for which, the story goes, Mussolini sent Hemingway a blank cheque.
The latter returned it with the advice that if Mussolini wanted a kudu, he should go to Africa and hunt one.
As I step into the dappled sunshine on the sloping drive, birds rise from the surrounding palms. And it is easy to imagine how the Finca was home even to as restless a soul as Hemingway.
Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins