Christopher Ondaatje: Bewitched by Africa's strange beauty

From a speech given by the philanthropist at the opening of the Royal Geographical Society's Ondaatje Theatre, London
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The Independent Online

Ernest Hemingway was the first great American literary celebrity of the 20th century. By the time of his death in 1961, he was an international legend. The white-bearded visage of Papa Hemingway could be recognised all over the world without the need for a caption. Countless magazine articles had chronicled the adventures of the hard-drinking, tough-talking, much-married action man. Almost as many literary studies had considered the psychology behind the work, his place as a modernist writer, the anatomy of that inimitable prose style.

Since his death, the man has become an industry. His childhood home in Oak Park and his house in Cuba are national monuments. Any bar in Paris, Madrid or Havana where he just might have dropped in for a whisky will proudly display the fact. Competitions are held to see who can best parody his work.

The works themselves have been analysed by Freudians, feminists, Freudian feminists, deconstructionists, new historicists, any kind of "ists" you could mention. And dozens of academics and biographers have made their name through his name.

Yet there is relatively little discussion of Hemingway's love of Africa and his African books. The two short stories – "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" are rightly judged to be amongst his best work. But his non-fiction book Green Hills of Africa remains underrated and the posthumously published True at First Light is often dismissed as the ramblings of an ageing and ailing man only capable of flashes of his old brilliance.

Africa was an obsession for Hemingway all his life. He longed to go there as a boy and follow in the footsteps of his childhood hero Theodore Roosevelt, who made a famous safari expedition to Tanganyika in 1910. When Hemingway finally made the trip in 1933, he was immediately bewitched by Africa's strange beauty. He longed to return and did so in 1953, on a last safari which came close to killing him, but which, despite its disastrous conclusion, he was to describe as one of the happiest times of his life.

Africa exerted a particular hold over Hemingway from his boyhood to his death and inspired some of his greatest writing. Africa was the country where, he said, "it pleased me to live; to really live. Not just let my life pass me by". It satisfied both sides of his nature, offering adventure and excitement enough for the sportsman and narrative possibility and natural beauty aplenty for the writer. Africa captured his imagination and his heart.

It was the setting of some of his most considered contemplations on the life of the writer, his keenest observations of nature, and his most exhilarating accounts of the hunt. Hemingway was a great African writer and a great African character; he created his own legend. A legend that owed much of its power to the myth of the great white hunter, the danger of the safari and the beauty of the African morning.

I came closest to Hemingway's Africa in the hours just after sunrise, waiting for coffee and the day to begin. Hemingway wrote: "Every morning when you woke it was as exciting as though you were going to compete in a downhill ski race or drive a bobsled on a fast run. Something, you knew, would happen, and usually before 11 o'clock. I never knew of a morning I woke that I was not happy."

I agree with him. On my last day there, spent by Lake Naivasha, I heard the morning chorus – the fish eagles crying to each other over the water, the African skimmers, the hideous shriek of the Hadada Ibis, and the melodic tones of the African Bou Bou. Above me, the sky was a hazy grey, waiting to turn blue. There are few places in the world so idyllic.

Africa in the morning holds out a wide world of potential. It is a time and a place where the idea of attaining one's best self and achieving one's best work seems quite possible.