Excerpt from True At First Light by Ernest Hemingway, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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True At First Light

by Ernest Hemingway

True At First Light
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  • First Published:
    Jul 1999, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2000, 320 pages

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From Chapter One

Things were not too simple in this safari because things had changed very much in East Africa. The white hunter had been a close friend of mine for many years. I respected him as I had never respected my father and he trusted me, which was more than I deserved. It was, however, something to try to merit. He had taught me by putting me on my own and correcting me when I made mistakes. When I made a mistake he would explain it. Then if I did not make the same mistake again he would explain a little more. But he was nomadic and he was finally leaving us because it was necessary for him to be at his farm, which is what they call a twenty-thousand-acre cattle ranch in Kenya. He was a very complicated man compounded of absolute courage, all the good human weaknesses and a strangely subtle and very critical understanding of people. He was completely dedicated to his family and his home and he loved much more to live away from them. He loved his home and his wife and his children.

"Do you have any problems?"

"I don't want to make a fool of myself with elephants."

"You'll learn."

"Anything else?"

"Know everybody knows more than you but you have to make the decisions and make them stick. Leave the camp and all that to Keiti. Be as good as you can."

There are people who love command and in their eagerness to assume it they are impatient at the formalities of taking over from someone else. I love command since it is the ideal welding of freedom and slavery. You can be happy with your freedom and when it becomes too dangerous you take refuge in your duty. For several years I had exercised no command except over myself and I was bored with this since I knew myself and my defects and strengths too well and they permitted me little freedom and much duty. Lately I had read with distaste various books written about myself by people who knew all about my inner life, aims and motives. Reading them was like reading an account of a battle where you had fought written by someone who had not only not been present but, in some cases, had not even been born when the battle had taken place. All these people who wrote of my life both inner and outer wrote with an absolute assurance that I had never felt.

On this morning I wished that my great friend and teacher Philip Percival did not have to communicate in that odd shorthand of understatement which was our legal tongue. I wished that there were things that I could ask him that it was impossible to ask. I wished more than anything that I could be instructed fully and competently as the British instruct their airmen. But I knew that the customary law which prevailed between Philip Percival and myself was as rigid as the customary law of the Kamba. My ignorance, it had been decided long ago, was to be lessened only through learning by myself. But I knew that from now on I had no one to correct my mistakes and, with all the happiness one has in assuming command, it made the morning a very lonely one.

For a long time we had called each other Pop. At first, more than twenty years before, when I had called him Pop, Mr. Percival had not minded as long as this violation of good manners was not made in public. But after I had reached the age of fifty, which made me an elder or Mzee, he had taken, happily, to calling me Pop, which was in a way a compliment, lightly bestowed and deadly if it were withdrawn. I cannot imagine a situation, or, rather, I would not wish to survive a situation in which I called him, in private, Mr. Percival or he addressed me by my proper name.

So on this morning there were many questions I wished to ask and many things I had wondered about. But we were, by custom, mute on these subjects. I felt very lonely and he knew it of course.

"If you did not have problems it would not be fun," Pop said. "You're not a mechanic and what they call white hunters now are mostly mechanics who speak the language and follow other people's tracks. Your command of the language is limited. But you and your disreputable companions made what tracks there are and you can make a few new ones. If you can't come up with the proper word in your new idiom, Kikamba, just speak Spanish. Everyone loves that. Or let the Memsahib talk. She is slightly more articulate than you."

Copyright Hemingway 1999. Published with the permission of the publisher. No part of this book may be reproduced without the written permission of the publisher.

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