Hemingway in Africa: The Last Safari (review)
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The Hemingway Review 26.1 (2006) 124-127

Reviewed by
Suzanne del Gizzo
Chestnut Hill College
Hemingway in Africa: The Last Safari. By Christopher Ondaatje. Woodstock: The Overlook Press, 2003. 237pp. Cloth $37.50.

The publication in 1999 of Hemingway's last major manuscript, True at First Light, was a turning point in Hemingway studies. Although the popular press largely discredited the book as the work of an aging author with only flashes of the old brilliance, for Hemingway scholars and aficionados, True at First Light invited a reassessment of Hemingway's last decade and in particular of the role Africa played in his writing and imagination. Hemingway in Africa: The Last Safari is the first book-length study to emerge on the topic since the release of True.

Author Christopher Ondaatje has impressive credentials. He was a successful businessman (now retired in order to pursue his first love—writing), who also found time to be a member of the Canadian bobsled team, take numerous safaris, and develop a passion for photography (details we learn during the course of the narrative). Born in Sri Lanka and educated in England, Ondaatje is interested in stories of empire and cultural contact; his other books include [Leonard] Woolf in Ceylon, Journey to the Source of the Nile, and The Man-Eater of Punanai. Ondaatje's life is steeped in the vestiges of empire; he is a member of the Travellers' Club and the Royal Geographic Society, and in 2003 was knighted by the Queen. 1 My critical disposition is not so virulent that I was immune to the promises and prestige of this resume. All romance and readiness, I was prepared to be dazzled as I sat down to read this beautiful book with a sepia-toned cover and thick, glossy pages full of photographs.

Unfortunately, the spell didn't hold. Although I did not expect the kind of deep, deliberate, and sustained critical insights that emerge from a scholarly work, I did expect to find a unique, passionate contribution to Hemingway literature. The book is premised on that alluring notion that we can in some way connect with the sensibilities of favorite authors or figures by retracing their steps, seeing what they saw, experiencing (at least in some fashion), what they experienced. I was willing to believe that an astute, educated, and worldly man could, by following Hemingway's routes on safari, offer an unexpected and perhaps more human perspective on the author and his writings than even the best academic work, which after all is most often pounded out on a laptop in a windowless office. Ondaatje's is a pilgrimage-based approach to appreciation [End Page 124] that combines fieldwork—complete with suitcases full of maps, journals, and literature—with a hefty dose of mysticism. In fact, the book with its high-gloss design and wonderfully credentialed author is reminiscent of Michael Palin's Hemingway Adventure, created for pbs in 2000, another effort to arrive at deeper understanding of Hemingway and his work by retracing his travels. Such field-based efforts, which physically involve the writer/filmmaker, appear to be a trend that may reflect not only a broad-minded and benign post-imperial nostalgia, but also a desire to reconstruct masculinity in the wake of empire. In any event, Ondaatje explains his project:

I decided to visit Hemingway country in Kenya, Tanzania (Tanganyika in Hemingway's time) and Uganda. By following in his footsteps and experiencing at first hand the places he wrote about on his two safaris, in 1933–34 and 1953–54, I sensed that one could understand Hemingway's attraction to Africa in a deeper way than many biographers, excellent though their books are about his life in America and Europe. On my safari, I would stop where he stopped and look where he looked, in a quest for the heart of his strange and profound affection for Africa.


Although the book does have its virtues, it ultimately lacks the discipline and seriousness to contribute meaningfully to the discussion...