Butler’s memoirs offer peek into Hemingway’s private life (IANS Books)

By Lydia Gil

Denver, March 7 (IANS/EFE) A new book by Ernest Hemingway’s former butler offers a portrait of the late author’s life during the years he resided at a country estate outside Havana.

In “Hemingway’s Cuban Son: Reflections on the Writer by His Longtime Majordomo”, Rene Villareal – who lived at the estate, known as Finca Vigia, for 15 years – recalls adventures they shared, as well as some of the habits and idiosyncrasies of the Nobel Literature laureate, whom he affectionately called “Papa” well before that nickname became universal.

Written with the help of his son Raul, the book provides an intimate and glowing portrait of Hemingway the human being – a man the young Villarreal came to respect and admire as much as his own father.

The author of the 157-page memoir, published by the Kent State University Press, was just 10 years old when Hemingway purchased Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm), located in the small town of San Francisco de Paula, in 1939.

The American novelist, who wrote the majority of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “The Old Man and the Sea” at the estate, lived there until 1960, just one year before he committed suicide in Idaho.

Born into a poor family, Villarreal recalls with nostalgia the peaceful, mundane life of San Francisco de Paula, where the lone policeman carried paper inside his holster instead of a gun. The first encounter between the writer and the young Afro-Cuban boy happened by chance outside the entrance to the residence where some kids in the neighbourhood had gathered to play baseball with a makeshift ball and a broomstick.

Hemingway promised the boys that if he bought the property they would not only be able to play on its grounds but that he would also buy them real bats and balls. He also told them that his own children would come to visit and it would be nice if they could all play together, which indeed happened when three of Hemingway’s children later arrived to spend their summer vacation there.

Villarreal recalled that it was very difficult for the local kids to pronounce the writer’s name, so when they heard Hemingway’s children call him “Papa” they used that name as well. The famed novelist’s guests at Finca Vigia were amused to hear the children of San Francisco de Paula address the author as “Papa” and it soon spread beyond that town and became his most enduring nickname.

Little by little, Villarreal gained the author’s trust, and at age 17 – after various problems with other personal assistants – Hemingway offered to hire him to take charge of the house and receive his many esteemed guests. While serving as butler, Villarreal was taken under the wing of the famed author, who taught him to box, care for weapons, and most importantly, to overcome his fears.

Hemingway referred to Villarreal as his “Cuban son” on more than one occasion, and the memoir shows the Cuban youngster to be a trusted helper to the author as he followed his fastidious routine and indulged in his eccentricities.

Villarreal describes Finca Vigia as an idyllic place, where by the author’s strict orders nature was to be meticulously preserved and not a single plant was to be pruned. Out of that paradise of lush vegetation, a very personal portrait of Hemingway emerges that allows the reader to appreciate the man behind the martinis, polydactyl cats and hunting rifles for which, besides his writing, he became known.

The memoir begins with Villarreal’s return visit to Cuba in 1996, 23 years after he left the island for the US.

The first chapter is tinged with nostalgia and disappointment at discovering that the manuscript of his initial memoirs, as well as the letters and photos of Hemingway he had left in the hands of a relative, had been lost.

The book is leisurely paced, rich in detail and – perhaps deliberately – apolitical until the final chapters that tell how the revolution turned his previous existence into a paradise lost.

Villarreal does not explicitly mention the racial tensions that existed in pre-Castro Cuba, but he elegantly shows how Hemingway disregarded the social conventions of that era.

Even at his advanced age, the octogenarian remembers his experiences in minute detail and offers the reader a privileged look at Hemingway, whom he may very well have come to know more fully than the novelist’s own children did.



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