Sunday, May 29, 2005


When I was teaching some literature classes at the University of Cambodia a year and a half ago I often used the Hemingway short story A CLEAN, WELL LIGHTED PLACE as an entry point, letting the students know that the author was a brawny, macho fisherman and hunter who had revolutionized the art of twentieth century writing, influenced an entire generation of authors, and finished off his illustrious life by aiming a shotgun square at his skull and blowing his brains out.

Most Cambodians have little exposure to any kind of literature in their own language, let alone English, so I thought I needed to start their education off with a bang. (So to speak.)

Probably a mistake.

Here's why.

The plot of A CLEAN, WELL LIGHTED PLACE is, well, let's just stop right there. There really isn't a plot. A deaf old man drinks in a cafe somewhere in Europe, probably Spain, reluctant to go home. Two waiters, an older man and a younger man, watch the old man drink. The younger man, being younger, wants to go home early to his wife and young child. The older man, being older, and alone, is in no rush. They gossip about the old man: how he's rich, how he once tried to commit suicide, how he is or isn't wasting everyone's time, all of this written in that strange, slightly off-kilter dialogue that doesn't sound like authentic conversation in the slightest, which is why it has a kind of fundamental truth that our own everyday dialogues lack.

No gunshots. No fights. No demonstrable climaxes and conclusions. Just two waiters talking in a bar as the night gets longer.

I taught the story in a bunch of classes, often reading it to them out loud, just for something different, just because they'd probably never had a story read to them. Reading a story out loud was new for me, too, but it was a short one (hence the term 'short story', Scott, DUH), and it's always nice to have Hemingway rolling off the tongue. And reading it multiple times made me respect old Ernest all the more. What he chooses to leave in. What he omits. What he alludes to. Stunning, really.

It's a great story. Nothing happens and everything happens. It's short and slight and philosophical and human.

Verrrrrry tough to teach, though.

But you'd be surprised.

Most Cambodians are not very analytical thinkers; they are not trained to examine the consequences of actions, the possibilities of one's present course of engagement.

But this was a story. And they know about old people, the old people in their villages who sit around, broken, watching the world go by. They know about grief and loss, cafes and waiters. They can latch on to the physical details of the story and the metaphysical ones as well.

There were a lot of new words in the story, new English words, but not as many as you might think, because Hemingway is not ornate and flowery and show-offy. He uses short sentences and short words. His genius comes from what he leaves out and what lies between the words he does use.

Some students objected to the fact that the deaf old man in the story, so the gossip went, had tried to commit suicide. One shouldn't do that, they believed; one should face one's problems, in this life, and endure.

The interesting thing about many Cambodians is that, being a moral, Buddhist culture, they often view the characters in a story through a moral, Buddhist lens. If a character in a story tried to kill himself, or others, that is clearly wrong, so therefore this is not a good story. If a man slept with a woman not his wife, well, this is immoral, so the story should not be recommended.

But I give them much credit, these old students of mine.

We're talking about nineteen, twenty year old students in Cambodia, reading a Hemingway story in its original English. (Understanding Hemingway back home, for well-educated, middle-class kids on the tail end of their teenage years is no mean feat, let alone for learners of a second language.) Some of them didn't bother, but those who did usually had something to say, and it was usually something interesting. Insightful. Some of them had read the story two or three or four times, diligently underlining the words they didn't understand, looking them up in the dictionary, trying to comprehend.

I'll remember that. All those afternoons. Me, in my white dress shirt, raising my voice, trying to teach Hemingway to a bunch of Cambodian students. The children of genocide. While the air conditioner hummed, and the electric fans did their robotic, rotating dance.

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