Books: Crash-landing in the green hills of Africa

A Week in Books: Hunting for that Hemingway revival
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The Independent Culture
Last month, I was wondering whether the centenary of Hemingway's birth would prompt British parodists to try some Papa mimicry. As usual, the Californians had got there first. It turns out that the Los Angeles PEN Center runs an annual mock-Hemingway contest, with the prize of a flight to Florence and dinner at Harry's Bar.

Maxine Nunes, one of 600 entrants, won the Italian job this year with her sultry tale of Presidential passion, "Across the Potomac and into her pants": "It was a long time since I had cheated on my wife, maybe even many hours or many days. `Meet me later,' I said to the girl, `in the room that is not square and that is not round.' `You mean Oval, Creep- o,' she said in that spoiled and charming way the pretty rich girls from Beverly Hills have..." Read it on the Web at: www.pen-usa-west.org.

Maxine Nunes has her Papa Bill confess that "We did many things together, the girl and I, but they were not the things that you could call sex, although they were sexy things and things of sex, but they were not the thing itself". This seems uncannily apt, given the erotic muddle at the heart of the book now entitled True at First Light (Heinemann, pounds 16.99). I can only agree with the wailing chorus of critics who have protested that this scissors-and-paste editing job (by the author's son, Patrick) on a forsaken manuscript about an East African safari should never have been published as "Hemingway's final novel". It is nothing of the sort, but an abandoned ruin, with odd patches of luminous prose.

Did Hemingway - as the hype suggests - really take the Kamba maiden Debba as a second "bride" on his ill-fated Kenyan trip (which ended in a plane crash)? The book hints coyly at some Bill-and-Monica-type sport, but Papa's buddy A E Hotchner doubts even that in his memoir, Papa Hemingway (Scribner, pounds 8.99). Hotchner notes that Hemingway often enjoyed a "practical- joke fantasy" about his conquests, and that he claimed to have slept with Mata Hari. The fabled temptress was shot in France in 1917; Hemingway first arrived in Italy in 1918. Difficult, even for Papa.

The terrible mess of True at First Light has allowed mocking reviewers to dance gleefully on Hemingway's grave. Yet, by the end of 1999, his finest works may well sell better in Britain than ever before. The reason lies in two short words: Michael Palin. The man who floods Middle England's bookshops with Papal-sized crowds will launch the TV series and book of his Hemingway's Travels in October. With a Palin blessing, the backlist could fly off shelves faster than a charging rhino. So the author who spent so much time in vain pursuit of lions may be rescued by a Python.

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