Out of Africa seemed out of place.
I was surprised to find it listed among National Geographic’s top 100 adventure stories of all time.* I thought it was more of a swoony period romance that limped along like a broken cricket. It was certainly not the stuff of extreme adventure.
Of course, my knowledge of Karen Blixen’s (aka Isak Dinesen’s) Out of Africa was derived solely from Sydney Pollack’s 1985 film adaptation of the book. Even after all these years (and I only saw the film once) I could still hear the oddly accented voice of Meryl Streep repeating the phrase: “I had a faahm in Ahfrica.”
So I hesitated to pick up the volume.
But the determination to tackle NatGeo’s list overpowered what may have been the memory of an immature adolescent, so I threw myself into the recliner, tome in hand. Immediately several things became obvious. Let me highlight just two.
First, Blixen is a captivating storyteller.
Her first-person narrative whisked me away to British East Africa. I found myself confronted by the odd pairing of an unruffled existence and the primitive struggles of life on a 4,000-acre coffee farm. There in the Ngong Hills of Kenya’s yesteryear . . . I slowed down. I raised and released an orphaned fawn. I was introduced to the complexities of Kikuyu and Maasai cultures. I suffered a plague of locusts. Trembling, I squeezed the trigger on my rifle and shot a charging lion.
These stories are rolled out not as one narrative but as many, knitted together loosely in five “books.” All but the fourth is themed: they are vignettes elicited from a “dry and burnt” landscape “the colour of pottery.” Out of Africa is out of time, or at the least, not bound by it. Blixen gathered her experiences between the years 1914-1931 and published them as memoir in 1937. Nearly a century has passed and they are no less vibrant.
Second, Blixen is a bold survivor.
She tells her story without explanation or apology.
One must look elsewhere to find the details of her personal life—quite painful—highlighted in the Pollack film. In the book, she simply appears as colonial-era owner-manager of a 4,000 acre coffee farm. Only hints suggest how she acquired the farm, how painful her marriage was, how she physically suffered from her husband’s infidelity (neurosyphilis, heavy metal poisoning), and later, how her own affair with big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton developed and was tragically cut short. That is not the stuff of this book.
What the reader does find is a person of privilege who struggles with repeated loss. She does so with the kind of ebullient courage that qualifies this book as a story of extreme adventure. She attempts to hold the farm together for her own sake and for the sake of the community of squatters and workers who occupy it. Blixen’s colonial mindset is evident in her choice of language, no doubt, but it is a mindset tempered by respect and affection for the cultures and people who labor around her.
One may be tempted to compare Blixen with Hemingway, but that would be a mistake. While the two moved in similar circles, shared a love for the same region, and clearly read each other (Hemingway praised Blixen’s work following his reception of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954**), they expressed themselves differently. Both dallied with tragedy. Hemingway did it using crisp and sardonic prose. Blixen is efficient as well, but is also fluid and warm and playful.
Pardon the long quote, but you must sample this:
“Out on the Safaris, I had seen a herd of Buffalo, one hundred and twenty-nine of them, come out of the morning mist under a copper sky, one by one, as if the dark and massive, iron-like animals with the mighty horizontally swung horns were not approaching, but were being created before my eyes and sent out as they were finished. I had seen a herd of Elephant travelling through dense Native forest, where the sunlight is strewn down between the thick creepers in small spots and patches, pacing along as if they had an appointment at the end of the world. It was, in giant size, the border of a very old, infinitely precious Persian carpet, in the dyes of green, yellow and black-brown. I had time after time watched the progression across the plain of the Giraffe, in their queer, inimitable, vegetative gracefulness, as if it were not a herd of animals but a family of rare, long-stemmed, speckled gigantic flowers slowly advancing. I had followed two Rhinos on their morning promenade, when they were sniffing and snorting in the air of the dawn,—which is so cold that it hurts in the nose,—and looked like two very big angular stones rollicking in the long valley and enjoying life together. I had seen the royal lion, before sunrise, below a waning moon, crossing the grey plain on his way home from the kill, drawing a dark wake in the silvery grass, his face still red up to the ears, or during the midday-siesta, when he reposed contentedly in the midst of his family on the short grass and in the delicate, spring-like shade of the broad Acacia trees of his park of Africa.”***
In the end, I am glad that I picked up this volume. I will proudly place it on my bookshelf of extreme adventure.
And drink some tea.
*If you would like to see the list of 100 extreme classics, see National Geographic Adventure Magazine (May, 2004). http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/0404/adventure_books.html (accessed March 11, 2019).
**Clara Juncker. “After You, Baroness!”: Ernest Hemingway and Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen). The Hemingway Review 35/2 (2016): 87-109. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed March 11, 2019).
***From chapter 4.