Out of Africa, Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen)
From the moment Karen Blixen arrived in Kenya in 1914 to manage a coffee plantation, her heart belonged to Africa. Drawn to the intense colours and ravishing landscapes, Karen Blixen spent her happiest years on the farm and her experiences and friendships with the people around her are vividly recalled in these memoirs. “Out of Africa” is the story of a remarkable and unconventional woman and of a way of life that has vanished for ever.
Why Out of Africa during Scandinavian Passport week you ask? Well, I suppose the book itself is more suited to a week focusing on Africa, but since Karen Blixen came from Denmark, and since this is very much her story – Scandinavian passport it is!
The first time I read Out of Africa I was fifteen and craving adventure. Well, where better to seek it than in a book focusing on the “Dark Continent”. The book is more a journal than a plotted story, told by Karen Blixen, detailing her life on a coffee plantation in the early years of the twentieth century (more about Karen Blixen and her fascinating life – in Day’s post).
Re-reading the book last month, I realized how different a book can seem from an older (*sigh*) perspective. My fifteen year old self saw a magical place where gazelles walk up to your door to get a drink of water, and lions are just a short walk away. The poetry of the African landscape as told by Blixen was visible to me even then, but I don’t think I noticed the darker side of the tale. Oh, this book is still a wonderful adventure – filled with beautiful descriptions of a place I still long to visit, but now I also see the woman behind the descriptions. Blixen, who had come from a very different climate and culture, tried to settle in Africa, fell in love with Africa, and who because of circumstances had to leave Africa and everything she built there, to go back to Denmark.
“The stellar heaven of the equator is richer than that of the north, and you see it more because you are out more at night. In Northern Europe, winter nights are too cold to allow one much pleasure in the contemplation of the stars, and in the summer one hardly distinguishes them within the clear night sky that is as pale as a dog-violet” (Out of Africa, Karen Blixen).
“I had a farm in Africa”. So begins Blixen’s story, and while it does seem at first as if this is a chronology of her time in Africa, the story quickly changes. Blixen doesn’t tell you a story, she brings you into the story. By introducing people, animals and events through incidents in her daily life, you feel like you are sitting there with her as she relates the latest anecdotes from the plantation. I found one thing to be constant, on the one hand, Blixen feels that she belongs in Africa, that it is her home, and yet, on the other hand, sometimes her stories are very much those of an outsider.
When Blixen describes “her people” both the natives and the white people on and near the farm, you do feel a twinge. This is most certainly not a modern story, and can seem very in-politically correct. Yet I didn’t see it as such. Blixen describes the natives through a glass that is morphed by a cultural and sociological divide, but is beautiful nonetheless.
The way the story is written, it is almost as if Blixen couldn’t at first face telling certain parts of her history, and so, wrote around them. Then, slowly, she seems to get more comfortable, and you are introduced to different people who were part of her world during her time in Africa. Still, even as she looks back upon those people, something is missing, there is an emotional detachment that can be frustrating. Though it may be that when Blixen is at her most detached, that is when she is showing the reader her true and deepest feelings. In these chapters we learn about her friends, and of course, Denys Finch Hatton, who was rumored to have been her lover. She never states this in any way, but there is something about the way she writes him that makes you wonder. One person who is hardly ever mentioned (maybe once or twice and never by name) is Blixen’s husband. Whether because it was too painful to relate, or because she felt it was of no importance, he is not part of the story.
“….To Denys Finch-Hatton I owe what was, I think, the greatest, the most transporting pleasure of my life on the farm: I flew with him over Africa.” (Out of Africa, Karen Blixen)
As the story comes to a close, so does Blixen’s life in Africa. The final chapters all deal with the failure of the coffee plantation, saying goodbye to friends, and going back to Denmark. While it does end on a sombre note, I love the final sentences of Out of Africa. There is something in her words that feels optimistic, and makes you smile.
This book makes me smile a lot. Maybe its because through Blixen’s words, I see and feel the harsh beauty that is Africa, maybe because she can bring each character back to life. For whatever the reason, this book is one I come back to ever so often, when I need to feel like I’m somewhere else, somewhere magical.
As for the movie? Well, in this case, the book reigns supreme.
Then again, I was never a Robert Redford fan…
This book was most likely purchased by Noa’s mother, but who knows, its been here forever.