“A Simple Enquiry” is set in late March in a snowbound wooden hut in the mountains. A major and Tonani, his adjutant, do some paperwork as the major applies oil to his sunburned face. Presently, the major goes into the bedroom and commands Tonani to finish the paperwork. Tonani takes out a book but then thinks better of it and buckles down to the paperwork.
Pinin, the major’s orderly, comes in to stoke the stove with pine branches. Tonani warns him to be quiet as the major is sleeping. Pinin finishes with the stove and goes back into the recesses of the hut.
The major calls to Tonani to send Pinin in. Pinin walks into the bedroom and shuts the door as the major lies on the bed. The major begins asking Pinin a series of questions and elicits the facts that Pinin is 19 and is in love with a girl that he doesn’t write to. The major then asks him if he is corrupt, and it dawns on Pinin that the major is propositioning him. As Pinin looks shamefacedly at the floor, the major smiles and tells Pinin to be careful, but that he won’t touch him.
Pinin leaves the room in an embarrassed manner and Tonani, watching him, smiles knowingly. The major, in the bedroom, wonders to himself whether Pinin lied.
“A Simple Enquiry” is a very short story that is not as simple as its title implies. It concerns the sexual orientations of three soldiers in the Italian army who are stationed in a snowbound hut. The implication is that there is a war on, as the major tells Pinin he has less chance of being killed if he stays on as the major’s servant than if he returns to his platoon. However, the implications of the rest of the soldiers’ actions and dialogue, including the major’s “simple enquiry” of Pinin, are far less clear.
The beginning of the story is straightforward enough. The major the boss of the operation, and he orders Tonani to finish the paperwork they were both doing so he can have a nap. Tonani, in turn, tells Pinin to be quiet when stoking the stove as the major is sleeping. The power dynamics between the three characters are thus established according to rank.
During the major’s questioning of Pinin, he seems to be propositioning the boy, but a few moments in the text call this surface reading into question. The first is where Pinin stands looking shamefacedly at the ground, refusing to answer the major’s questions and Hemingway reveals the major is thinking: “He was really relieved: life in the army was too complicated.” If he had been actually propositioning Pinin, he may have been angry or annoyed that the boy was “superior” and unresponsive to his advances. Thus, the major may simply have been testing Pinin to see if Pinin would respond; that is the reading the phrase “life in the army was too complicated” encourages.
The second moment that calls the obvious interpretation of the “simple enquiry” into question is when the major gives Pinin the choice of whether to return to his platoon or to stay on as his orderly, recommending the latter course to the boy. If the major had truly been propositioning Pinin, he would more probably not have wanted him around anymore and sent him back to his platoon. This would be more in line with the major’s behavior in the beginning of the story; he treats Tonani and Pinin as if they are there for his convenience.
Another ambiguous gesture in the text is Tonani’s smile when Pinin walks embarrassedly out of the major’s room following the simple enquiry. He obviously is aware of what happened behind the closed door, but is he smiling because he knows the major was testing Pinin, or because the major was actually propositioning him? Perhaps he isn’t even thinking about whether the major’s advances were genuine or not, just that the incident occurred; he is simply amused at Pinin’s expense.
The final ambiguous moment in the story is where the major wonders if Pinin lied to him. Evidence for Pinin as a liar includes the fact that Pinin says he is in love with a girl but he never writes to her. It seems improbable that though there is a war on, Pinin never writes to the girl he is in love with. Thus, the story concludes with a final ambiguous occurrence that leaves the reader wondering about the meaning of the entire narrative and about Hemingway’s intentions in writing it.