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Old Books and the Sea

I had been reading Alice in Wonderland. I remember putting the book down for a moment and thinking about how eager all of the characters are to tell or listen to stories. They all seemed to be in pursuit of small narratives - whether they’re telling tales or demanding them of Alice (with the exception of the caterpillar, who is mostly indifferent to what she has to say). Living - as they do - within the nonsensical world of Alice's consciousness, perhaps it’s the presence of these narratives that adds a kind of momentum and serves as a source of interest - if not through meaning then at least as fragments of sustenance. I was sitting there on the deck and thinking about how little it seems to matter that none of the stories in the book make sense, and how we don’t even expect them to. The characters Alice meets feed off of stories, and produce their own like delicious excrement. They don’t want to find anything out in particular, or reach any concrete conclusions - they only desire to be engaged, one way or another, in the activities of telling or listening.

I was trying to decide if this kind of activity was any more or less valuable than entertainment, when Captain Dave emerged on deck from the cabin. The previous evening I had been skimming through a book I found on board (entitled ‘Men, Ships and the Sea’ - published by the National Geographic Society in 1962) and I encountered a chapter on the subject of superstition. Since then, I’d been meaning to ask him whether there were any sailor’s superstitions that he really believed in - it seemed like an opportune time to do so. In his characteristic straightforward manner, he told me that he never whistles on his boat, and he never starts a long voyage on a Friday. I enquired further, as to whether he had ever delayed sailings owing to the latter superstition. He made a small nod in response, but instead of answering the question he launched into a small story: He told me about one particular Friday when he and his crew had been ready to sail from the British Virgin Islands to the Marquises. The weather was favourable for departure, so they ignored superstition and sailed anyway. Despite having a trained pilot as a crewmember, they ran aground 8-10 times (he couldn’t remember the exact number and it didn’t seem to matter), even though the voyage was just a few weeks long.

It turned out that Dave had come on deck to return to me a book I’d lent to him; a copy of Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. I had come across it on a small book-swap shelf in the general store of one of the marinas we docked at, and swapped it with a Mills and Boone ‘Sexy Romance’ novella – another crewmember had discovered a series of these on a similar shelf at another marina, and added them to the yacht’s library. The captain said ‘thanks’ as he handed me the book, then returned to the cabin without saying anything else. Despite my usual aversion to having more than one book going at the same time, I decided to make an exception and begin reading The Old Man and the Sea for the first time - telling myself that it was fine for such a short story, and besides, I had already seen the animated version of Alice in Wonderland.

It was a thin paperback published in Delhi, India. The cover depicted a snow-capped mountain landscape with pine trees, set behind a blue lake. On the lake there was a small canoe in which an old man with a grey beard, round glasses, a black top hat and a brown suit with tails was standing up holding a fishing rod. Dangling from the fishing rod was a Rainbow Trout almost as big as the man. In his other hand was a small brown fish that he held to his face as if closely inspecting it. Beside him - in the canoe -were two more of the brown fish that looked more like sweet potatoes. On the back cover of the book was a large, blurry, black-and-white headshot of Hemingway, which appeared to have been cut-and-pasted from some other publication.

The story was printed on very thin paper in a relatively large typeface - something like ‘Century Schoolbook’, 14pt. After I began reading I discovered that there were spelling mistakes and potentially misplaced words at least every few pages. I was concerned that my first reading of the great classic would end up as serious distortion of the intended version, but pressed on nonetheless; it seemed, at least, that the narrative had remained mostly intact, in spite of the formal errors. I was only left in full confusion once; over a likely printing mistake on page 37, which read: “This far out, he must be huge in this month, he thought.”

I finished the book around noon, after which I got up and went to the stern to urinate into the wake of the boat. I then sat down on the deck with my feet over edge to smoke. Beside my head were the two nylon fishing lines we trawled with whilst sailing in deep water. There hadn’t been any bites that particular day, but we’d had more luck on preceding days. I sat and watched the whiteness of the yacht’s wake as it fizzled out and blended with the intense blue of the ocean towards the horizon. When I turned to my left I could see land; we were sailing north, following the coastline. There was a small swell on the sea and as the boat pitched I would catch my reflection in the polished steel of the railings. Little clusters of salt crystals had formed on the steel and were distorting the image of my face. I thought about how I would have liked to scrape some of it off to give to the Old Man in Hemmingway’s book, so that he could season his raw fish before eating it as he had wanted to - at least according to the version I was reading.

july 2009