Library Director’s Notebook
I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.
This simple sentence, so ripe with the promise of countless tales, begins Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (the pen name of Baroness Karen Blixen) whose memoir of running a coffee plantation in Africa between 1914 and 1931 has captured the imagination of countless readers. I had never read the book, but I had seen the movie with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. I liked the movie, but I had always thought the book would be better.
It is. The movie often seemed vague and rambling at times and frequently lost my attention (although I perked up considerably when the young Robert Redford came into view!) The book also rambles, but in a most delightful way. In Out of Africa we have a heartfelt recounting of the wildlife, the weather,the customs, and the many people who shaped Africa in the 1920’s and 30’s.
To our modern perspective, Dinesen’s thoughts and feelings about the native Africans may seem paternalistic and patronizing. In fact, her actions were often viewed by her contemporaries as being overly sympathetic to the native people. She includes many vignettes of Africans, particularly of the Kikuyu tribe. In each story she seems to capture the depth and the intelligence as well as the poignancy and heartbreak of the native peoples as they made the difficult adjustment to living among the empire-building European settlers. Particularly disturbing is Dinesen’s account of the flogging death of one young African, whose murderer, his white employer, received an outrageously short prison sentence. Such stories are painful to read but important to remember.
On the other hand, Dinesen, like most of her contemporaries seems to have had no problem at all with the idea of shooting Africa’s wildlife. Her accounts of safaris are filled with pride as she recounts the many trophies of the hunt. Yet, because she also possesses a poetic soul, she does occasionally lower her rifle, caught up in admiration of beautiful African animals she could not bear to kill.
Dinesen’s story is never pedestrian. Not only does she experience many thrilling adventures and make numerous deep and enduring friendships, she is also stirred to a kind of ecstasy in her love of the land and its unique beauty. Many of the passages in the book seem to be breathing poetry on the page. You can feel the deep longing she feels for the land when she finally is forced to leave due to the eventual failure of her farm.
You know that her heart belongs inAfrica. When reading Out of Africa, becoming deeply immersed in the haunting mystery of the place, any reader is sure to feel the ancient pull of Africa as well.