This is a story of an aging and a poor Cuban fisherman named Santiago, who hasn’t caught a fish in 84 days – a symbol of ultimate bad luck in the Cuban fishing community known as “salao“.
The book revolves around three characters: Santiago – the old fisherman, Manolin – Santiago’s apprentice and a marlin. Manolin is a young boy who deeply cares and loves the old man however, due to salao, the young boy is forbidden by his parents to go fishing with the old man for the bad luck is seldom contagious. Determined to catch a fish and break his salao, Santiago sails far deep into the Gulf Stream where he finally hooks a magnificent marlin. The reader might be momentarily relieved here only to find out that the marlin is so giant and powerful, that the old man fails to haul him in and instead, it is the marlin that tows the skiff for next two days, pushing Santiago into deeper waters.
Still not willing to give up, the old man hopes that the marlin will ultimately get tired of towing around and will die of either fatigue or starvation. As experienced as he was, he decided to put up a fight. While he battles the fish with sweat and blood for the next two days, he develops compassion and respect for the magnificent marlin because just as the old man himself, the marlin refuses to give in. The old man wonders: “There is no one worthy of eating him from the manner of his behavior and his great dignity.”
On day three, the marlin finally becomes sluggish in its movement and the old man seizes this opportunity to kill it with his harpoon. The marlin is now dead and in old man’s control. The old man and the reader is yet momentarily relieved here. The old man tastes the marlin’s flesh and decides that it is one of finest he has ever had and it will earn him a fortune. Could there be a better way to end a what seemed like a never ending salao? However, the marlin’s blood begins to lure ravenous sharks. Santiago kills and drives away as many sharks as he could but the sharks keep coming and there comes a time, he loses his harpoon, his only weapon. It’s almost sunrise by the time the old man reaches the shoreline and not much remained of the magnificent fish. He is so exhausted that he goes back home and slumps into his bed and falls into deep slumber.
Next day, the fishermen gather around Santiago’s boat and measure that the fish is 18 feet long. They feel sorry about Santiago and tell Manolin to let Santiago know. Manolin cries and feels guilty for not being there for the old man when he needed him the most. He vows to accompany Santiago on his next fishing trip.
A certain kind of wisdom, one which might be comparable to the depth of an ocean is attained only by virtue of age and adversity, for adversity introduces a man to himself. This book captures the epiphanies and wisdom which only a man as old and experienced as Santiago can posses. The message of the book is quite precise: ‘Man can be destroyed, but not defeated’ or in simple words, it’s all in the head. Experiencing this book definitely requires some patience. Imagine sitting on a boat in the middle of an ocean and waiting to catch a fish. It could be an hour, a day or days. Life is about being patient and it is only human to hope and romanticize the impending victory. And just as in this book, in life too, sometimes there is no there when we reach there but we have to keep trying. We have to overcome our enemies, our demons – as much powerful as they appear, as much as we appreciate their strength and hold them above us, on a pedestal. Most of the times, they are only as strong as our weakness. The simple plot of this book captures the essence of most complex struggles in life. Therefore, just as Ernest Miller Hemingway says through Santiago, Man can be destroyed, but not defeated. Righteously marked as one of the finest classics, this novella is definitely a must-read.
Some of my favorite quotes from this book are:
- “It is silly not to hope, he thought.”
- “He [Santiago] was too simple to wonder when he had attained humility. But he knew he had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride.”
- “No one should be alone in their old age, he thought. But it is unavoidable.”
- “You were born to be a fisherman as the fish was born to be a fish.”
- “Why do old men wake so early? Is it to have one longer day?”
- “I have never seen or heard of such a fish. But I must kill him. I am glad we do not have to try to kill the stars. Imagine if each day a man must try to kill the moon, he thought. The moon runs away. . . . Then he was sorry for the great fish that had nothing to eat and his determination to kill him never relaxed in his sorrow for him. . . . There is no one worthy of eating him from the manner of his behavior and his great dignity. I do not understand these things, he thought. But it is good that we do not have to try to kill the sun or the moon or the stars. It is enough to live on the sea and kill our true brothers.”
- “He did not say that because he knew that if you said a good thing it might not happen.”
But, thank God, [the fish] are not as intelligent as we who kill them; although they are more noble and more able.”
- “He looked across the sea and knew how alone he was now. But he could see the prisms in the deep dark water and the line stretching ahead and the strange undulation of the calm. The clouds were building up now for the trade wind and he looked ahead and saw a flight of wild ducks etching themselves against the sky over the water, then blurring, then etching again and he knew no man was ever alone on the sea.”
- “She is kind and very beautiful. But she can be so cruel and it comes so suddenly”
“the fish’s eye looked as detached as the mirrors in a periscope or as a saint in a procession.”
- “They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert. Everything”
- “Fish,” he said, “I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.”