Irish thriller writer Adrian McKinty takes us on an atmospheric journey to one of literature's greatest shrines, and receives an extraordinary offer
The secret policeman wasn’t smiling. It just looked like that because his
false teeth didn’t fit correctly. I was relieved. If Russian writer Isaac
Babel is to be believed it’s when secret policeman start grinning at you
that you should begin to worry.
“Think about it,” he said as he ran his fingernails along the right lapel of a
navy double breasted blazer that was miles too big for him. His eyes were
dark and squinty and his skin yellowy white. He was small, grey haired and
not terribly menacing.
“I’m sorry?” I said, unsure that I had heard him correctly.
He repeated his offer. “Any book in Hemingway’s library for two hundred
dollars,” he said in carefully enunciated English.
I nodded to show that I had understood his proposition.
I had spent the last half hour examining the library in Hemingway’s Havana
house - the Finca Vigia. There were thousands of books: first editions,
engineering texts, old atlases, older dictionaries, galleys mailed to
Hemingway for blurbs, review copies, gifts; many of them had been doodled
over by Hemingway himself and several were extensively underlined and
annotated. A bruised early copy of The Sun Also Rises was probably worth a
couple of thousand and at the bar of the Ambos Mundos Hotel a man had told
me that somewhere in these stacks was a signed Catcher in the Rye which I
knew I could flog on eBay for at least fifty grand.
The secret policeman tapped his foot, leaned backwards and placed his left
hand on a cheetah skin which had been draped over a sofa. He patted it
gingerly, like an underconfident Bond villain.
The cheetah interested me. In his 1958 Paris Review interview George Plimpton
had described Hemingway’s house in Havana, and this room in particular, with
meticulous detail. “The walls are lined with white painted bookcases from
which books overflow to the floor...Hemingway stands when he writes in a
pair of oversized loafers on the worn skin of a lesser kudu.” Opposite the
writing desk and directly in Hemingway’s field of view Plimpton noted “an
armoire with a leopard skin draped across the top.”
Apart from the books, papers, bull fight posters and letters, Hemingway’s home
was dominated by hunting trophies. Plimpton observed dead animals everywhere
- skinned, mounted, stuffed and yet more carved from wood and ivory. He also
found random bags filled with shotgun shells and carnivore teeth.
Hemingway’s writing desk is still opposite the armoire but strangely
Plimpton’s leopard skin has metamorphosed into the hide of a cheetah. The
animals are difficult to mistake. Their pattern of spots, heads, and bodies
are completely different and this beast currently being drummed upon by the
secret policeman’s chubby fingers was definitely not a leopard.