on 9 July 2002
Through "Out of Africa" Karen Blixen tells Europe of her long stay on a coffee farm outside Nairobi. It is a work of pure romanticism, of an educated and refined young woman who wants to see Africa as her beloved romantic authors of the nineteenth century might have done. I mean romanticism in the proper sense of the word - the conviction that man and nature should be one, that the greatest human fulfilment is in merging with the land, plants and animals around us and becoming one with them.
The book concentrates on the Kenyan landscape and the Africans who people it. She draws romantic and spiritual lessons from the oneness of the Africans with their land. Perhaps some of her commentary on the Kikuyu seems patronising nowadays, but how else could she have written ?
Blixen's style is readable, fluent and anecdotal, making "Out of Africa" an easy read. (Though there are times when her landscape descriptions are a little too purple and her verse, the little of it that she shares, is frankly embarrassing.)
In fact,"Out of Africa" is a rare item - a book about long-term expatriation rather than a "travel book" about a short trip to a glamorous place. So, it's not Blixen's game to be taking colourful incidents out of context and making a song-and-dance about how exotic they are, which is the irritating stock-in-trade of the travel writer. She describes what happens to a person when the exotic becomes commonplace, which is as different from travel-writing as roast beef is from candyfloss.
But Blixen hides herself away too. Many of her preoccupations are merely hinted at : her love for Finch-Hatton, her husband, her strained relationships with other whites and the day-to-day business of the farm. She made the conscious decision that "Out of Africa" should be about the landscape and the Africans that people it, not about Karen Blixen. She moves through the book like a ghost, a shadowy figure in a trench-coat. In this, the book is completely different from the film of "Out of Africa", which is firmly about the life and loves of Karen Blixen, relegating Kenya and its people to the role of background scenery.
on 15 January 2001
'Out Of Africa' is a marvellous account of Karen Blixen's time running a coffee plantation in Kenya. The enchanting prose in which this 'novel' is written laments the intense love for Africa, its places and people that through a woven, progressive and sometimes heart-rendering narrative, Blixen so beautifully portrays.
Blixen's interaction with the Kikuyu tribe lends a unique perspective (in terms of the period in which this novel was written) of a young imperialist white woman and the way she deals with the natives of Africa. She genuinely wants to help them, wants to educate and employ them.
Blixen was famous world-wide for her intricate and olf-fashioned storytelling, combined with social graces that contradicted her strong viewpoints on War, colonisation and Empire. It is ironic that such a strong woman felt the need to publish 'Out Of Africa' under the disguise of a male name.
Blixen's intense love for Denys - a local hunter, mixed with the deep affection she holds for her servant combine with her vibrant love of Africa to make this recollection a beautiful and moving one. This is probably one of the best works of travel writing, setting a precedent for authors such as Francis Mayes etc. ...Well worth a read.
on 19 December 1996
Baroness Karen Blixen --a.k.a. Isaac Dinesen-- had a farm in Africa, and on that farm the wide-eyed Danish émigrée lived her best years, the years of vivid memory, out of which she was to live and breathe and write for the rest of her life. In Africa she married, ran a coffee plantation, met "the dark races," got syphilis, and fell in love. These events shaped the fiction she was to write later, when she returned home to Denmark after the coffee farm foundered, a casualty of faulty administration and just plain bad luck.
An exile in her own country, the reluctant repatriate poured her heart into "Out of Africa." The book is unsurpassed for an atmosphere of heart-wrenching bereavement, yet serene resignation. Here is Eve after the Fall --the taste of apple lingering in her mouth-- groping to restore with words her Paradise lost. Here the storyteller weaves a tapestry of lean, vast landscapes simmering under the equatorial sun; of races worlds apart living in precarious peace; of friends --black and white--; of love; of heartbreak, and of loss.
"Out of Africa" is Isaac Dinesen's superb act of creation by recollection, a Paradise Restored you will often want to come back to.
The book was purposefully written as a picture of Kenya as it was, it is not an autobiography as such. The writing style of the book is clearly influenced by Isak Dinesen's first language, Danish, and therefore has a magical air that is thoughly enjoyable. To quote a passage near the close of the book, when she has to leave the farm..'when in the end, the day came on which I was going away, I learned the strange learning that things can happen which we ourselves cannot possibly imagine, either beforehand, or at the time when they are taking place, or afterwards when we look back on them. Circumstances can have a motive force by which they bring about events without aid of human imagination or apprehension. On such occasions you yourself keep in touch with what is going on by attentively following it from moment to moment, like a blind person who is being led, and who places one foot in front of the other cautiously but unwittingly. Things are happening to you, and you feel them happening, but except for this one fact, you have no connection with them, and no key to the cause and meaning of them. The performing wild animals in a circus go through their programme, I believe, in that same way. Those who have been through such events, can, in a way, say that they have been through death, a passage outside the range of imagination, but within the range of experience.'
Who could put such feelings into words? When writing trancends time and place, and illuminates our common human experience, this is when we know we have experienced great writing.
Karen Blixen's African adventure (now Kenya) as a colonial Master and a coffee planter brought her in immediate contact with the heart and the mind of the Natives.
Her book is a heartrending but also a violent tale about the laws of the white man, the fight against nature (for water), prejudice, customs and inveterate beliefs (healing), and also about the mysterious and sacred moments in the life of the Natives (e.g., dancing).
Life before colonization
The extreme violence of life before colonization is expressed in a Masai dream: `in the old days it was good fun. When the Kikuyu or the Wakamba had got a fat piece of land and fat herds, we came to them. First we killed all men and male children with steel. We ate the sheep and goats. Then before going away, we killed off the women with wood.'
The white man stole the black man's land by creating a `Protectorate'. According to the latter's laws, the Natives could not own land (!). But as Karen Blixen says, 'it is more than their land you take away. It is their past, their roots and their identity.'
The Natives were also bombarded by competing Missions: `the intolerance that one Christian Church showed towards the other.'
The treatment of the blacks by the white colons was nothing more than a master/slave relation.
In some aspects, the white man filled in the mind of the Natives the place God takes in the minds of the colons.
For the Natives, something written was taken as an evangel.
Their wealth was their livestock, but also `eroticism (which) runs through their entire existence. It is the number and quality of the wives which decides a man's success and happiness in life, and his own worth.'
The fact that `some nations gave away their maidens to their husbands for nothing' was for them incomprehensible. More, `one tribe was so depraved as to pay the bridegroom. Where was their self-respect?'
In judicial affairs, the Natives didn't look for the motive of the crime. The damage done (even in the case of murder) had to be compensated by replacement (cattle).
Karen Blixen's book sketches an objective, but `human' picture of, all things considered, a shameless period of exploitation in the history of mankind.
on 1 June 1996
A classic because one is never aware that the author
is writing a novel -- you never catch her "writing".
She tells her story of Africa, "unconscious" that it's
being read by anyone but herself.
It's a curse and a blessing that Hollywood made a movie
out of her book. A blessing in the sense that the movie
may have introduced new readers to her work; a curse in
the sense that the movie resembles the book only in the
superficial elements of some of the "plot".
A delicious irony is added by the fact she had to use a
male pseudonym in order to get published.
on 1 December 1998
Probably one of the greatest books i've ever read about a remarkable woman who had the courage to be different. You really have the feeling you are with her in Africa and just have to read it, it's much better than the film!!!
on 23 May 2009
My mother was born in Kenya in 1933. She lived there until 1959. As a child I was fascinated by her stories of life in El Doret, Nairobi and Mombasa.
However, it was only recently that I translated that fascination into reading accounts of settler life in Kenya.
I have read,. "The Flame Trees of Thika" - excellent. I haven't read parts two and three yet.
- West with the Night, by Beryl Markham, a brilliant book.
Out of Africa was written by a woman whose first language wasn't English, yet her prose is beautiful. She captures the landscape perfectly. Her attempts to understand the Kikuyo and the Masai are well-written. She shows little prejudice, and much compassion. I did not sympathise with her desire to shoot any animal that moved, but then that was how Europeans behaved in the early part of the 20th century.
Her descriptions of the other settlers were beautiful to read - Old Knudsen, the sailor, the "loser", who enlightened her, and who had very good ideas. The British colonials, some civil servants, others hunters, were all given an impartial view.
The "hero" in the "movie" was Denys Finch Hatton. In reality he was a likeable chap, knowledgeable and fun. There was no mention of a love affair, and only meloncholy (not modern day "tears" at his death.)
The version I read was published in the USA in 1970. There were no notes as there would be in a Penguin version.
The 4-star rating is due to the "Immigrant's notebook" section in the middle. This was hit and miss. Some of the notes were fascinating, but most were not. Without this dull section, the book would be perfect.
on 1 February 2003
Kate Blixen writes about her time on her coffee plant during inter-war Kenya with warmth, compassion and occasional wit. Her opinion of the local tribe, the Kikuyu, was far more sympathetic than I would have guessed colonial emigrants to have thought- she sometimes seems amused at some of their customs and slightly patronising but with it comes a real love for these people. This is where OOA shines- Blixen's interaction with the Swahili speaking Kikuyu is entertaining, enlightening and amusing- we can see her learning through her stay in Kenya and becoming a more balanced person.
Alas, as with many memoirs, there is little direction to her writing or plot that is one reason why the film varied from the book so much. As wonderful a picture Blixen paints of Africa there feels "gaps" to the story- possibly where she refuses to confess personal details. This is fine as an autobiography goes- sometimes writing can be bogged down in too many personal details- but if you prefer plot driven stories then OOA may be a disappointment. Her story is a large painting of Kenya with its environment and people taking centre stage. As an illustration of Africa in the 1920's you will find no finer book.
on 16 December 2013
The author is probably the most enigmatic character I have ever encountered. The absolutely superb film "Out of Africa" whetted my appetite, and I expected the book to follow closely the film's storyline. But it doesn't. It is the most remarkable description of a whiteperson's experiences with a huge number of African men, women and children before, during and after World War I- those she employed on her farm and many others, from destitute villagers to African chiefs. Her desriptions of these people is so remarkable that each person can be visualised extraordinarily well.
Only towards the end of the book does she really mention the events which are the mainstay of the film and even then the reader is surprised to find that they nowhere near tally.
Nothing is neatly tied up at the end: the reader is left with a mass of questiions, which makes the book even more fascinating