Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

If I know a song of Africa,--I thought,--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 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 Ngong look out for me?

Early in 2013 I read a couple of books about Africa--subconsciously, I think, because it was freezing outside and my mind wanted to wander somewhere warm: Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King and Chinua Achebe's No Longer at EaseIn December, with the temperature dropping once again, I was compelled to finally pick up the copy of Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa that's been sitting on my shelf for ages.

Dinesen was really Karen Blixen, a wealthy Danish woman who owned and lived on a coffee plantation in Kenya, near a tribe named the Kikuyu.  (Who knows why she needed the pseudonym--she calls herself "Karen" throughout.)  Out of Africa is her story of her life on the plantation, which, though cut short by financial difficulties which forced her to move back to Denmark, she clearly considered her spiritual home.  In the book, she describes how her position as a large white landowner makes her something of the center of Kikuyu life.  Clearly she cares deeply about the surrounding tribes, to whom she provides amateur medical care and adjudication of tribal disputes.  And yet, at times she can be startlingly dismissive and obtuse in a way that offends modern sensibilities:

I was much interested in cookery myself, and on my first trip back to Europe, I took lessons from a French Chef at a celebrated restaurant, because I thought it would be an amusing thing to be able to make good food in Africa.

Or here, where comparing them to dogs isn't the worst thing about this paragraph:

The Deerhounds, from having lived for innumerable generations with man, have acquired a human sense of humour, and can laugh.  Their idea of a joke is that of the Natives, who are amused by things going wrong.  Perhaps you cannot get above this class of humour, until you also get an art, and an established Church.

So those are the grains of salt with which one must take Out of Africa.  But despite them, it is a tremendously beautifully written book, maybe one of the most beautifully written I have ever read.  Blixen, not a native English speaker, manages to capture (what I imagine is) the majestic grandeur of the African landscape as only one who truly loves it must be able to.  I particularly like this passage, in which Blixen's Kikuyu servant Kamante wakes her up to witness a grass fire on the nearby hill:

"Msabu," he said again, "I think that you had better get up.  I think that God is coming."  When I heard this, I did get up, and asked him why he thought so.  He gravely led me into the dining-room which looked West, towards the hills.  From the door-windows I now saw a strange phenomenon.  There was a big grass-fire going on, out in the hills, and the grass was burning all the way from the hill-top to the plain; when seen from the house it was a nearly vertical line.  It did indeed look as if some gigantic figure was moving and coming towards us.  I stood for some time and looked at it, with Kamante watching by my side, then I began to explain the thing to him.  I meant to quiet him, for I thought that he had been terribly frightened.  But the explanation did not seem to make much impression on him one way or the other; he clearly took his mission to have been fulfilled when he had called me.  "Well yes," he said, "it may be so.  But I thought you had better get up in case it was God coming."

I also want to share with you, apropos of nothing else, a couple turns of phrase that really stayed with me, if just for future preservation.  Once, Blixen describes the task of charcoal-burning, describing the charcoal as "[s]mooth as silk, matter defecated, freed of weight and made imperishable, the dark experienced little mummy of the wood."

That's one for the metaphor pantheon: The dark experienced little mummy of the wood.  And then there's this statement, in a sketch entitled "Of Pride," which affected me greatly: "Pride is faith in the idea that God had, when he made us."  Of course, that really terrific sentence is preceded by a brief discourse on the difference between the pride of the "barbarian" and the "civilized being"--not a direct reference, I think, to the Kikuyu, but certainly resounding with the same conflicted attitude.

 The final chapters of the book, in which she is forced to leave Africa and cut ties with the tribe and her house staff are surprisingly bittersweet, and made moreso by the plane-crash death of her lover, British aviator Denys Finch-Hatton, who is buried in the Kenyan hills that Blixen regrets she will not be buried in herself:

Between the river in the mellow English landscape and the African mountain ridge, ran the path of his life; it is an optical illusion that it seemed to wind and swerve,--the surroundings swerved.  The bow-string was released on the bridge at Eton, the arrow described its orbit, and hit the obelisk in the Ngong Hills.

Blixen asks in the passage I quoted at the top: Does Africa know a song of me?  In fact, there is still a suburb of Nairobi named "Karen" today, a fact of which she was quite proud.  Though I found her attitude toward the Kikuyu to be a bit suspect at times, Out of Africa is ultimately a very moving paean to a place and a people.

No comments: