Fishing for a Hemingway hero

SUN JOURNAL

Novel: At 101, the Cuban who inspired "The Old Man and the Sea" is alive and well, and will discuss his friendship with the famous American writer -- for a price.

April 14, 1999|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

COJIMAR, Cuba -- He was already an old man when Ernest Hemingway immortalized him, and that was 47 years ago.

"Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated," Hemingway wrote, describing the fisherman Santiago, the hero of his novel "The Old Man and the Sea."

Gregorio Fuentes, the real-life inspiration for the fictional Santiago, is nearing 102. His eyes have caught up with the rest of him -- they are a cloudy blue, the sea before a storm -- and his fishing days are long over. Yet he still seems the embodiment of the tough, scarred Hemingway man.

The spare but powerful novel, about the fisherman's epic battle with a marlin bigger than his boat, is based on one of Fuentes' adventures. Fuentes' retelling of the tale is familiar to any reader of the Hemingway classic: He fought the giant marlin for days -- triggering a search by worried neighbors when he failed to return home after the first night -- only to lose it to sharks.

The book won Hemingway the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and would contribute to his winning the Nobel Prize for literature a year later. Readers still make the trek to this seaside village in search of one of literature's great heroes.

Fuentes will oblige the pilgrims. And finding him is no problem -- anyone on the dusty streets of this fishing town can tell you where he lives. But, as in much in Cuba, where official socialism is mutating into personal capitalism, there is a price.

"Ten dollars," Rafael Valdez, the old man's grandson, tells The Sun's visiting contingent. Rafael is the gatekeeper to the tourist attraction that his grandfather has become.

We retire to the nearby La Terrazza to consider the implications of checkbook journalism. The ceramic-tiled, ceiling-fanned La Terrazza is yet another establishment that qualifies for the Cuban version of Washington-slept-here: Hemingway drank here. He cut a considerable swath through Cuba, having visited and lived here from the 1930s until his death in 1961.

Even more than in other Hemingway haunts such as Key West, Fla., the author's ghost seems particularly alive in Cuba, perhaps because much has remained the same here since he was a common sight on the streets of Habana Vieja or aboard his fishing boat, the Pilar, which he docked within view from La Terrazza's windows. Many of the cars date to the '50s, perhaps the last time many of the crumbling buildings were painted.

In this time-locked place, we consider Valdez' price. Back home, we would automatically take the high road and haughtily refuse to pay for an interview. But this is Cuba, where we've been handing out piles of greenbacks right and left for everything from a working permit for visiting journalists to the use of the telephones in our hotel rooms. We did draw the line, though, when someone sought $100 for a visit to a sports school.

Nothing is free for a foreign journalist in Cuba; why should a meeting with a literary legend be any different?

As it turns out, $10 is a bargain. We learned later that a reporter from another paper paid $1 a minute for his 20 minutes with the old man. Someone else was charged $50 for 15 minutes, turning over another $100 before the meeting ended.

The cost of interviewing Fuentes apparently fluctuates with market demands. Hundreds of reporters from around the world happened to converge in Havana at this time -- the Baltimore Orioles and a group of American musicians are in town for feel-good, people-to-people exchanges. Many of those journalists broke away for a side trip to this outpost of Hemingwayana, sure to continue in popularity this year as the centennial of Papa's birth is celebrated.

And so we allow Valdez to usher us into his grandfather's tiny house. With the low-lying, late-afternoon sun and our own sense of anticipation, Fuentes seems towering, a legend in house slippers. He settles into a chair beneath a garish painting of his younger self with Hemingway and begins what no doubt are oft-repeated memories of their long friendship.

They met by accident in 1928. Fuentes, then the captain of a freighter on a delivery run from Cuba to the United States, picked up a distress call from a boat that had broken down. It was Hemingway, and Fuentes towed him to safety. Several years later, Hemingway would hook up with Fuentes during one of the author's frequent trips to Cuba, and they became close friends.

They fished together in the Gulf Stream off Cojimar where the marlins run. (More recently, those swift waters have also proved popular with other seafarers -- defectors who use Cojimar as their launching pad to freedom.) During the war years, the two also used the Pilar to search for German U-boats. Hemingway would leave his boat in Fuentes' care during his other travels, and later willed it to his friend.

After Hemingway killed himself in 1961, Fuentes could no longer bear to fish.

"I never wanted to go to the sea again," he says.

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