Old man and Havana

Following Hemingway's trail in Cuba, 50 years after the author's death.

Brightly coloured 1950s American cars still cruise the streets of Old Havana: “Those Chevrolets and Fords are still there, burbling like big beasts in dimly lit roads. Lopsided and creaky, they drive in a time warp.”
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Papa would not like it. Papa, as Ernest Hemingway liked to call himself in his later years, did not like uninvited writers in his house, and today I have come with half a dozen aspiring British and Canadian writers from a fiction writing workshop I have been running in Havana. Today we venture out beyond the city centre and find out more about Cuba's most famous expatriate (after Che): a Nobel laureate and one of theUnited States' best known writers. We can get through his gate for 10 Cuban pesos (Dh0.13) as we would to any tourist stop, but even now, 50 years after his death, not quite inside the house.

Hemingway's prickliness is legendary - his book A Moving Feast snipes at many of his contemporaries, and he had fights with F Scott Fitzgerald and Wallace Stevens. I never cared for the swagger and belligerence, the cult of the macho personality and his need to prove himself a writer by using a gun. But at his best, he is a better writer than his egotistical self sometimes thinks: a delicacy of line, a perceptive observation, an empathy far beyond the comic book safari superhero that he wants to be. In his real life, I felt sure, he displayed more of these sensitive qualities than he did for the image machine. For many years I had wanted to find out if that was true.

I had glimpsed Hemingway's trail in Paris, where he loafed in the 1920s, then in Spain, where he'd been in the 1930s. He came to Cuba from Key West because of the deep sea fishing. "The great reason for living in Cuba," he said, "is the Big Blue River." Although with his republican sympathies he applauded the revolution in 1959, Havana before that was also a place where he could mingle with millionaires and still be one of the boys in a boat or a bar with no literary rivals to contend with. Havana in those Batista-run days was, as Graham Greene put it, "a city where every vice was permissible and every trade possible". The Mafia drove around in brash red and white and blue American cars. Those Chevrolets and Fords are still there, burbling like big beasts in dimly lit roads. Lopsided and creaky, they drive in a time warp. Under the wide American bonnets the engines have long been replaced by makeshift Soviet ones. Much of Havana is similarly confusing: often a frozen battle between concrete and garden.

I am staying at the Habana Libre, a 25-storey tower block built in the 1950s as the Havana Hilton. Fidel Castro made it his first headquarters after the revolution in 1959. The 24th floor where he had his meetings is under renovation. Today, on the floor above is a nightclub with a hydraulic roof that can open to the stars. Next to the hotel is Coppelia Park, where a huge Sputnik-like ice cream parlour is a magnet for hundreds of Cubans who queue there with more pleasure than they do every other day at the bank or the ration shop. To the left is the university where the plot of the revolution began, while down the Rampa, by the Malecón (the seafront), is the grand colonial-style Hotel Nacional where in the old days Frank Sinatra had his birthday party and where the history room boasts other famous guests like Marlon Brando and Winston Churchill. Around the original garden city has turned into an unkempt wilderness and trees burst through the colonial facades, roots erupt out of marble floors, balconies collapse.

A five-peso (Dh0.69) taxi ride away is Habana Vieja (old Havana), a Unesco heritage site. The conservation and restoration project has created a beautiful town with fine restaurants (almost all state owned), boutique hotels and bookstores. The old town has an inlet from the sea as one border, and the broad leafy boulevard Paseo del Prado - much like the Ramblas in Barcelona - as the other. In between is a series of plazas. The Plaza de la Catedral has an ornate Baroque-style church on one side and the grand El Patio restaurant on the other, which hosts fashion shows and Middle Eastern nights with belly dancing in the open air. The US$26 (Dh95) grilled lobster on the menu is particularly good. Behind it, in a dark alleyway, is Hemingway's favourite Havana restaurant: La Bodeguita del Medio. The walls are like Pollock paintings of graffiti by "Hemingwayians" - the term the Cuban writer Leonardo Padura Fuentes uses for people obsessed by Hemingway. The criollo cooking is good and honest and hasn't changed since Hemingway's days: beef hash, pollo frito, congrí (rice and black beans) to be washed down with a mint-leaf mojito. The Cuban baila music is earthy and lively, like in almost every other bar and restaurant in Havana.

Near Plaza de Armas, a five-minute slow salsa shuffle away, is the Ambos Mundos Hotel - Hemingway's first Havana home. He stayed here for a year at $2.50 (Dh9) a night in a much greater splendour than he could in Key West where he lived before. Down the road is the Floridita bar where the daiquiri cocktail was invented for him. At the Ambos Mundo you can get very close to the writer. He stayed in Room 511 and you can visit it for much the same price as he paid and see a small display of his books and photos. Hemingway wrote Death in the Afternoon and The Green Hills of Africa in this room. Then, in 1939, he moved to Finca Vigía, 14km out of town, where he eventually wrote The Old Man and the Sea, which won him the Pulitzer.

The day we pick to drive to Finca Vigía in San Francisco de Paula is the wettest day we have had all week. Torrential rain falls. Our van is like a boat at sea. The wheel spray rises above the windows so you can't see out. I feel I am out at sea chasing marlin. We get to the gates of the house just as they are pulling the signboards in to save them from being washed away. A palm-lined drive leads up a hill. The grounds are immense. When Hemingway first saw this house, which his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, had found to rent, he did not care for it. A country house far from the sea and far from the bars of Havana was not what he wanted. Finca Vigía had nothing to offer. He went fishing in a huff, but while he was away Martha rented the house and by the time he got back presented him with their new lifestyle. The marriage didn't last and they went off to report on war zones. Hemingway bought the house a year later with the money he earned from For Whom the Bell Tolls, and stayed in it almost for the rest of his life. He wrote, "It is a good place to work ... I wake up when the sun rises and go to work ... when I finish I get a swim. Sometimes we go into town ... see a picture or go to La Floridata."

But did it ever rain like this? We decide to brave the storm and go in. We are told we can take shelter in the cafe by the house. Nice idea, but at the top there is only a tiny souvenir shop with hardly anything on Hemingway and just one chair. The cafe turns out to be a coffee counter facing the drowning garden. And there are three coach-loads of non-American tourists crowding out the entrance to the shop. They give up and leave. We are made of sterner stuff.

Half an hour later, the rain eases and I venture out with a broken umbrella. The trees are enormous. The pergolas around the yellow house are choked with flowering vines and shy hummingbirds. This is the strangest of writers' houses. We can't go inside the building. Not a step in. Only peep in. Every room has a window - the house is all on one level - and walking around the house you can see into every room but always only from the outside. The rooms have been preserved just as they were when he was last here. We are told Finca Vigía means a place to look out from, not in.

The museum's first director was Hemingway's majordomo - René Villarreal - who started working for him as boy. In his memoir he tells the story of how he and his friends were playing baseball outside the house when Hemingway stopped to talk to them. The kids said they were chased out of the house by the gardener for stealing fruit. Hemingway promised them free access to the fruit in the garden, and said they could play baseball inside anytime they wanted as long as they did not harm the trees or the birds or the animals. He promised them bats and balls and gloves. Later he gave René a job working in the house, and when René grew up he became the housekeeper. After Hemingway left in 1961, ill and ailing, and finally killed himself in Idaho, Fidel Castro appointed René as director of Finca Vigía and told him to "keep it exactly as it was".

Only one room has an open doorway. You can see into the front sitting room and the dining room. The walls are studded with antelope and oryx heads and the head of the Cape buffalo that was hunted in the famous short story The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. On the left are a couple of armchairs in floral chintz, hardly the throne of an alpha male but one is his favourite chair. Nearby is a radio and a record player on which he listened to Segovia and Gershwin. As you walk along the perimeter, peering in through the windows precisely like the sort of person he'd have wanted to shoot, you see his study with the famous Royal typewriter. Right up against the wall, on a white bookshelf. A fat copy of Who's Who sits under the Royal to raise it to the right height so that he could type his daily 500 words standing up. I always thought he'd have had a view of the sea. But no. Only a blank white wall to beat his head against. The next room is his bathroom with the weighing scales where he weighed himself every day in his last years, recording the weight on the wall like a child.

From the back of the house you can see Havana: the José Marti monument in Revolution Square and the Capitolio are visible. In one of the back rooms there is an African spirit sculpture to protect his books, and a plate by Picasso. Next to it a guest room where celebrities like Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper stayed.

Mary Welsh, his last wife, had a tower built for Hemingway to work in. He didn't like it. Now it houses a small exhibition of Hemingway and the sea: his fishing rods, a trophy, and photographs from different moments in his life, including one of Castro being given a winner's cup by Hemingway at a fishing tournament.

We walk past the avenue of pine trees towards a big, deep, empty pool with huge cracks across the blue floor. This is where Ava Gardner swam carefree, where stories of hedonism abound. And, finally, in a large open pavilion: Pilar. The boat that Gregorio Fuentes captained for more than 20 years, a model for The Old Man and the Sea. The boat that took Hemingway fishing, took him hunting for Nazi submarines during the war. A handsome polished brown boat with one fishing chair and a large cabin.

At the end of the tour, my guide, intrigued by my questions, offers to show me a special book she has. We go into the office, a ramshackle wooden building that used to be the garage for Hemingway's three cars: the red Chrysler, the Plymouth convertible and the Buick station-wagon. She pulls open a steel filing cabinet and rummages around until she finds Baker's edition of Hemingway's Selected Letters. The book is battered. The pages are falling out. I open it and read a Dear Max letter in sentences that are plain and simple and sometimes a little awkward. Papa writes that he misses Max and will have lots of stories to share when he gets back from his trip across the Red Sea and to go easy on the hard stuff, and to remember to blow your nose and turn around three times before going to bed. Is this the man who boasts of shooting lions with one hand?

Hemingway, the archetypal great American writer, the man of excess, of high living and big safaris, turns out to be a quiet hero of the Cuban Revolution and full of quaint superstitions. An iconic American writer whose adopted home is absurdly off limits to most Americans and who has become almost a Cuban franchise, along with sea, sand and salsa.

In these few days, dodging the ubiquitous Che portrait, I have learnt that to find the real Havana, to go behind the facades, you have to walk the back streets, past the university, the old Hilton, the Coppelia, the bleak markets of cassava and papaw and along the broken, non-heritage, unreconstructed streets to where kids get their hair cut on the pavement and play baseball with maracas under banyan trees. But to find the real Hemingway, perhaps one needs to do more than follow his footsteps. I reckon he is hiding in the sea. The deep midnight blue sea. Out there with the marlin and bonito. Perhaps I need to dive in there. Or perhaps better still, dive back into one of his oddly stunning, Havana-baited books.

Romesh Gunesekera's novel Reef was shortlisted for the Booker prize. His most recent book is The Match (Bloomsbury).