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Out of Africa (thoughts)

February 3, 2007

Out of Africa was my third classics challenge read and by far the most challenging. Her prose makes me weak in the knees; her laten racism draws me back up.

The book itself is a memoir of Dane Isak Dinesen’s life in Africa. I looked up Dinesen a little after I read the book; I’ll talk about her life later.

Dinesen is a beautiful writer. She’s really good at creating a scene and capturing her feelings. The book doesn’t really follow a chronological order, except for the last chapter about her preperations to return to Denmrk. Instead, it’s a random collection of vignettes; sometimes, Dinesen spells out the ‘lesson,’ but usually she leaves that for the reader to determine. At the same time that I revelled in her prose, some of her morals horrified me. After all, she’s writing when Kenya was still a colony, when Kenyans were ‘Natives,’ and when big game hunting was a popular sport for gentrified Europe. So, in between her discussions of the majestic mountains, or the orphaned gazelle that she helped raise, are passages about killing lions, wildebeest, etc. or patronizing observations on ‘the Natives.’

I’m a vegetarian, so I feel that I’m fairly far at the sensitive end to descriptions of hunting. And, believe me, there were times when Dinesen turned my stomach a bit. But she also showed me, for the first time, *why* people hunt. Do I think that hunting is moral now? Absolutely not. But the discussions of hunting shouldn’t scare anyone off of reading the book; they aren’t very plentiful, mainly just passing references to her youth or friend Denys. I can’t truly comment re: her discussion of ‘Natives,’ since I’m white. I didn’t agree with them, but they didn’t destroy the book for me. I feel that Out of Africa is a window into a certain kind of privileged, self-absorbed life style, led by a woman of unexpectedly profound insight. For me, this insight was worth the occassional offensive passage. But, the reader should go in aware that the book contains racist ideas.

Thus, Out of Africa challenged me more than I ever expected to be challenged. Dinesen truly brought me into her mind; I saw with her eyes, judged with her morals, and loved with her heart. I only wish that this book was longer.

After looking up Dinesen online, I discovered some interesting facts (that you would never know from reading the book). Her true name was Karen Blixen, and she moved to Kenya because of her husband. He gave her syphilis early in their marriage, but they stayed married for nine years, when he left her. Her ‘friend’ Denys was actually her lover; however, their relationship was rather complicated (i.e.-he was bisexual, and more attracted to men). Apparently, the movie Out of Africa focuses on these facts. So, if you’ve seen the movie, don’t expect the book to be anything similar.

Really, I think that Dinesen’s words are the best way to convince you that you should read Out of Africa. Because you really should.

The chief feature of the landscape, and of your life in it, was the air…The sky was rarely more than pale blue or violet, with a profusion of mighty, weightless, ever-changing clouds towering up and sailing on it, but it has a blue vigour in it, and at a short distance it painted the ranges of the hills and the woods a fresh deep blue….In the highlands, you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be. (4)Here lay before you a hundred miles’ gallop over grass and open undulating land; there was not a fence nor a ditch, and no road…There were low thorn trees regularly spread over the plain, and long deep valleys with dry riverbeds of big flat stones, where you had to find a deer-path here and there to take you across. After a little while you became aware of how still it was out here. Now, looking back on my life in Africa, I feel that it might altogether be described as the existence of a person who had come from a rushed an noisy world, into a still country. (98)Still, by his presence, he turned my home into a chosen, comfortable corner of the world. (223)

Denys and Kanuthia pulled up their sleeves and as the sun rose they skinned the lions…We sat on the short grass and ate and drank. The dead lions, close by, looked magnificent in their nakedness, there was not a particle of superfluous fat on them, each muscle was a bold controlled curve, they needed no cloak, they were, all through, what they out to be. (231)

The flamboyant red Acacia flowers in the gardens of Mombasa, unbelievably intense of colour and delicate of leaf. The sun burns and scorches Mombasa; the air is salt here, the breeze brings in every day fresh supplies of brine from the East, and the soil itself is salted so that very little grass grows, and the ground is bare like a dancing-floor. But the ancient mango trees have a dense dark-green foliage and give benignant shade; they create a circular pool of black coolness beneath them. (298)

In the long yeas before them, will the Giraffes sometimes dream of their lost country? Where are they now, where have they done to, the grass and the thorn-trees, the rivers and water-holes and the blue mountains? The high sweet air over the plains has lifted and withdrawn. Where have the other Giraffes gone to, that were side by side with them when they set going, and cantered over the undulating land? They have left them, they have all gone, and it seems that they are never coming back.
In the night, where is the full moon? (299)

Men, I think, cannot easily or harmoniously envy or triumph over one another. But it goes without saying that the bride triumphs over the bridesmaids, and that the lying-in-visitors envy the mother of the child; and none of the parties feel the worse on that account. (392)

If I know a song of Africa-of the Giraffe, and the African new moon lying on her back, of the ploughs in the fields, and the sweaty faces of the coffee-pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Would the air over the plain quiver with a colour that I had on, or the children invent a game in which my name was, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or would the eagles of the Ngong hills look out for me?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Framed permalink
    February 4, 2007 9:48 pm

    Great review. I mayhave to add this to the list. I haven’t read a book about Africa for years.


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