I make no secret that Ernest Hemingway is one of my all time favorite authors and a huge influence on me. “True at First Light” was one of the posthumous novels, the last to be issued, in 1999, the centennial of the author’s birth. It is vintage Hemingway - sort of a cross between “The Green Hills of Africa” and “A Moveable Feast.” Billed as a “fictional memoir” there is more memoir here than fiction. The narrator is a man named Ernest Hemingway who is in colonial Kenya with his wife Mary. He is appointed Game Warden and is in charge of a camp that at the beginning of the novel is under threat of attack from the Mau Mau rebellion, members of which who had just escaped from prison and are making their way towards the camp. But not too much is made of this, other than to illustrate the conflict between colonialism and native culture, which blends beautifully with the conflict within Hemingway’s and Mary’s marriage, which is the main thrust of the story.
There are digressions, reminisces about his Paris days, other writers, his own writing, and of course, big game hunting. Throughout the first half of the novel, Mary is waiting to hunt down a lion that had been circling the camp for weeks - an obvious metaphor - but Hemingway doesn’t think she’s strong enough to kill the lion nor does he believe that she is technically capable due to her size and the fact that she had missed shooting other game many times. Throughout the story, there are interactions with natives and colonial players, often giving a vivid portrait of the colonial era in east Africa; and the descriptions of the African savannah are simply beautiful. He takes you there and you are there.
All in all, not my favorite Hemingway “novel” but a damn good one. Fans of Hemingway will absolutely love this.
It’s also interesting to note that considerable controversy surrounded the publication of this book. Edited by Hemingway’s son Patrick, he was blasted for editing down what was originally a 800 page manuscript to a more “manageable” size. His reasons for this, he says, was the bring more focus to the story, carving away all the asides and loose material in the original manuscript, reportedly, long passages blasting family and friends. However, the integrity of the original manuscript was released a couple of years later - the entire text - under the title “Under Kilimanjaro.” One day, I will get around to that, mainly to see how it originally read. But I found nothing wrong with this truncated version of the story, which is was the bulk of this book focuses on.