True at First Light was a novel put together by Ernest’s son Patrick, after his father’s death. Patrick’s objective in creating this novel was to create his “teddy bear”- something that made him warm and comfortable as he slept. I read this little notation after the book was completed, and in hindsight, I believe I felt this objective come through. In that sense, the book was successful.
However, this work does not come close to the genius exhibited on other Hemingway works including “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, “The Old Man and the Sea”, “To Have and Have Not” and the short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” I have yet to have the pleasure of reading the rest of the Hemingway catalogue, so my exposure is somewhat limited.
This novel was a “fictional” tale of the African years of Hemingway’s life. Most, if not all, of the characters represented in this work were real characters. While the novel was pieced together by Patrick, it had a very Ernest Hemingway feel to it. Some of the ways characters, atmospheres and emotions were expressed had nuances akin to Hemingway’s own writing. However, there is a line between a “decent” novel and a “great” one, and Patrick, despite a very good attempt, did not cross it. He simply did not have the talent that his father did. In addition, while Ernest usually took you on a roundabout way to get to his message, Patrick took you the same direction and failed to deliver the coup de gras.
That being said, I must admit to being transported to Hemingway’s camp in Africa. I could see and feel his appreciation for his natural surroundings. I could feel his empathy for a people that he felt incredibly saddened for changing, to some extent. It’s evident from this novel that Hemingway really wanted to leave as small a mark on Africa and its people, but this is not something that can be only accomplished or not accomplished. This goal is more likely to be based on a continuum, and I think Hemingway kept this in his mind and felt guilty for some of his mistakes.
This novel is not without some genius. The way in which hunting is expressed, including the kinship for the hunted animal, is touching. You can see the struggle and the attempt at justification for all Hemingway’s actions, including his impact on the native Africans. When something could not be justified, Hemingway suffered.
In addition, I really empathized with the feelings Hemingway had for leaving a place that he knew and loved, to seek adventure somewhere else. Some people have a constant desire to move around and see the world, but after you find a place that you love, when you leave it, you find a hole exists for that home in your heart. This hole can never been filled permanently – there will always be some longing. Where do you draw the line between adventure and contentment? It is a very fine line indeed.
I’m glad I had the chance to read this work, because it gave me an object of comparison for other Hemingway works, and taught me a lot about Ernest as person. I believe Patrick should be proud of this work; I got the feeling that he relished in every moment of this journey. I’d like to imagine this improved his relationship with his father and helped him cope with his death – but such things I will never know.
"The other day you said all writers were crazies and today you say they're all liars."
"Did I say we were all crazies?"
"Yes, you and G.C. both said it."
"Was Pop here?"
"Yes. He said all Game Wardens were crazy and so were all White Hunters and the White Hunters had been driven crazy by the Game Wardens and the writers and by motor vehicles."
"Pop is always right."
"Ht told me never to mind about you and G.C. because you were both crazy."
"We are," I said. 96-97
"Harry Dunn was shy, overworked, kind and ruthless. He was fond of Africans and understood them and he was paid to enforce the law and carry out orders. He was as gentle as he was tough and he was not revengeful nor a hater nor was he ever stupid nor sentimental. He did not hold grudges in a grudge-holding country and I never saw him be petty about anything. He was administering the law in a time of corruption, hatreds, sadism and considerable hysteria and he worked himself, each day, past the limit that a man can possibly go, never working to seek promotion or advancement because he knew his worth at what he was doing. Miss Mary one time said that he was a portable fortress of a man." 159
"It has not been easy to get back nor to break the chains of responsibility that are built up, seemingly, as lightly as spiderwebs but that hold like steel cables." 161
"This looking and not seeing things was a great sin, I thought, and one that was easy to fall into. It was always the beginning of something bad and I thought that we did not deserve to live in the world if we did not see it." 176
"...we studied the city as thought it were being seen for the first time by people who had never known it was there but had always lived to see it." 213
"It is stupid to expect or hope that a woman that you love should love all the things that you do." 213
"But being properly scared as I was when out with the spear at night is a luxury that you have to pay for and like the best luxuries it is worth it most of the time." 271
"No one has any size in bed, you are all the same size and dimensions are perfect when you love each other and we lay and felt the blankets against the cold and our own warmth that came slowly and we whispered quietly and then listened when the first hyena broke into the sudden flamenco singing noise as though he were blasting into a loudspeaker in the night." 310