Isak Dinesen is the pseudonym of Karen Blixen, who was, when all is said and done, quite a remarkable woman. Born in Denmark in 1885, she arrived in Africa in 1913, where she married Baron Bror Blixen, a Swedish cousin; they owned a coffee plantation in Kenya until 1921, when they were divorced, after which Baroness Blixen ran it herself until 1931, when the collapse of coffee prices forced her to sell the farm and return to Europe. Out of Africa, thanks to Hollywood, is probably her best-known book.
It is, quite simply, a memoir, one of the best ever written. It is in many ways a singular work, impressionistic, inferential, almost dreamlike at times, but then returning to a hard clarity. I had originally read this book many years ago, and subsequently had the opportunity to lay hands on an edition in which it was combined with Shadows on the Grass, which is not so much a sequel as an extended coda.
There are two main characters in this book, although at times they seem to be one: Dinesen herself, and Africa. One is struck, first of all, by her sensitivity to the reality of Africa – not the bloody, war-torn, disastrous Africa of today, but the Africa of nearly a century ago, at a time when there was still the echo of an Africa that had existed before Europeans began to carve it up into “protectorates” and to impose their own ideas of civilization on those whose ancestors were, in point of fact, forefathers to us all. It is apparent from Dinesen’s narrative that she went to Africa, shortly before World War I, with an open mind and an open heart.
Much of the book deals with the people on her farm – her major domo, Farah, a Somali and a devout Muslim; Kamante, whom we meet as a boy that Dinesen cures of an infection in his legs, and who eventually becomes her cook; her Kikuyu “squatters,” who lived on the farm in their own village and worked the coffee plantation in return for their land and a modest stipend; the house servants, some Kikuyu, some Somali, and the little Totos, the young boys who herd their goats onto the lawns to graze and seem to be continuously present, each of whom is an integral and valued part of her life in Africa; the Masai, who lived in a reserve across the river and were her closest neighbors, at those times when their nomadic life brought them into propinquity. Apparent throughout the book is Dinesen’s respect for these people, and her understanding of their ways of thought, their ways of life, very different from the Europeans who were their rulers, and in Dinesen’s eyes, much more legitimate in this Africa that belonged to them.
Interestingly enough, Dinesen does not concentrate much on European society in Kenya, even though she was only twelve miles from Nairobi: in part, at that time twelve miles was a considerable distance, and in part, one feels that Dinesen did not consider European society central to her life. She does give accounts of her European friends and some odd characters, much in the same way that she relates incidents concerning her African friends and acquaintances: Old Knudsen, a Norwegian sailor who wandered in one day looking for a place to stay and lived in a hut on the farm until he died; the Fathers at the French Mission; the Swede Emmanuelson, a fugitive who stays for a night before he sets off to walk to Tanganyika; Berkeley Cole, Hugh Martin, Ingrid Lindstrom, farmers, wanderers, government officials; and Denys Finch-Hatton, who by all accounts (although she nowhere makes reference to this) was her lover for many years, and who was killed in an airplane crash as she was preparing to leave Africa.
She is not sanguine about the effects of European dominance in Africa, although she criticizes it only obliquely, as in this passage from near the end of the book:
It is more than their land that you take away from the people, whose Native land you take. It is their past as well, their roots and their identity. If you take away the things that they have been used to see, and will be expecting to see, you may, in a way, as well take their eyes. . . Now my squatters were clinging to one another from the same instinct of self-preservation. If they were to go away from their land, they must have people around them who had known it, and so could testify to their identity.
Dinesen was one of the earliest people to understand the cultural destruction wreaked by Europeans on other peoples of the world, in a time when there existed no vocabulary to describe it.
Dinesen’s gift is that she brings these people, and the Africa in which they lived, vividly to life, in part because she did understand them so well: she describes them, not in European terms, not in ways that an American would rely on, but in terms that associate them very firmly with their time and their environment, so that people, wildlife, weather, and place are all one seamless fabric, a truly rich and shimmering tapestry.
Apparent also is her love of the wildness of Africa, its complete lack of regard for the niceties that its “conquerors” expect. At the time Dinesen was writing, the European population of Kenya was approximately 5,000; this country was in no way tamed, and was not to be for quite some time (if, indeed, it has been yet).
Shadows on the Grass, read as an immediate continuation of Out of Africa, has the effect of snapping the first book into sharp focus. She spends a chapter talking about Farah and the Muslim Somalis who were so prevalent in Kenya, and later discusses Islam quite sensitively and intelligently. It is in this coda that her love of the wildness of Africa is thrown into stark relief, and her criticisms of the European influence are sharpest. She draws a distinction between respectability and decency, noting that domestic animals are respectable, while wild animals are decent, having a direct contact with God. “We registered ourselves with the wild animals, sadly admitting the inadequacy of our return to the community – and our mortgages – but realizing we could not possibly, not even in order to obtain the highest approval of our surroundings, give up that direct contact with God which we shared with the hippo and the flamingo.”
She closes with a letter from Kamante: “I certainly convinced when I pray for you to almighty God that this prayer he will be stow without fault. So I pray that God will be kind to you now and then.”
I have no difficulty calling this volume great literature, because it is not about a farm in Africa. It is about love for the wildness of the world, about the numinous in everyday life, about loss, danger, and joy. It has lessons for us today, and will continue to teach us as long as there are people who can read. I first read these books many years ago; I am grateful to have read them again, and don’t think I will part with them this time. They have much more wealth in them than I can even begin to note here, and will bear rereading again and again.
(Vintage Books, 1989)