There was a mean old physician who'd always been on a grand mission to make patients thinner. He told them for dinner they should only eat what they caught fishin'.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This novella is a masterpiece of American literature. The story is straightforward, but visceral and provocative. Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman, has been having the dry spell of all dry spells, having not returned with a fish in over eighty days. Santiago recently lost his assistant / apprentice, a boy named Manolin, but the age-mismatched pair remain friends. After a scene in which the two hang out and share a meal one evening, most of the rest of the book is only – literally – the old man and the sea.
The next day Santiago goes out much farther than usual in an attempt to rectify his losing streak. Soon, he hooks what he can tell is a massive fish. It turns out to be an eighteen-foot marlin, and it ends up dragging his boat around for the better part of three days before Santiago can sink a harpoon into it. But the three days of raw fish meals, almost no sleep, and gashed hands (from the line) are only the start of Santiago’s problems. The marlin is far too big to fit in Santiago’s tiny boat. The fisherman has to strap the fish to the outside of the boat. It’s not long before a shark sinks its teeth into it, and – while Santiago kills the shark – the blood and meat dripping into the sea attract additional sharks. By the time Santiago gets back to port, there’s nothing but a skeleton attached to his boat. Locals are impressed by the fish skeleton, buy Santiago has nothing to show for all his tenacity.
I was reading a book that dealt with the challenges of modernity (Camus’ “The Fall”) around the same time I read this book, and it occurred to me that this is, in an important sense, the opposite of “The Fall.” While Santiago may be struggling to prove that he’s still the man who once won arm-wrestling matches against brawnier challengers, he’s also at-ease in a way that seems rare. Santiago knows who he is. His fear of death is minimal. He can endure because he has the confidence of one who has mastered himself via the forge of nature.
This short book is definitely worth reading.
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For fog has settled on the bay
and ship shapes fade to gray.
They count themselves infinite ships
while bounded by that bay.
The sea deceives, that much is true;
the rest we’ve yet to know.
Some will swear that trawlers sit there
that were lost long ago.
Are fishing vessels like the dreaded shark,
that swims endlessly when wetted by sea?
No mourning nor merriment owed the dark,
and miles between the hull and the quay.
They persistently glide on ocean tides,
measuring time by space left in the hold.
There’s a secret some sailors will confide,
each outing ends in a death unforetold.
There is the pleasant death of days at rest,
but then there’s becoming Poseidon’s guest.
In the background are a couple of Kochi’s famous Chinese fishing nets. These particular nets are primarily a tourist attraction. They pull up tiny (shrimp-sized) fish and other aquatic life. They’re more about getting tips than selling fish. In the foreground are a couple of fishing boats with the nets visible within.
When I lived in the US, and I’d buy a pack of frozen shrimp, more often than not it came from Thailand. That astounded me as Thailand is about as far as one can go to get shrimp. Even with freezing, there is a time factor involved. There are both US and US adjacent/proximal producers of shrimp, but Thailand is still a low-cost producer for US markets even with transportation costs figured in.
It’s interesting to be in a place were prices for a shrimp dish are the same as for pork or beef, and sometimes even the same as for chicken.
From Phuket you can see the fleets of fishing trawlers working it all day long.