Out of Africa

For ages, this had been on my list of "books I should've read by now" list, citing that many friends had studied this in school and I felt left out of the party. So I convinced the girls in my book club (all of whom had also missed out on this particular bandwagon) that we should correct this lapse... and... well... I'm glad we did? Ultimately, not many people were all that pleased with Out of Africa, myself included, but it does, at least, provide a detailed glimpse at a bygone world. The reason for its presence on so many school reading lists, however, has got to be the whole "written by a woman" and "about Africa" qualifications, because the paternalistic racism and selective honesty on the part of the author is not exactly something that schools should be promoting to students who aren't old enough to recognize this.

Karen Blixen published Out of Africa under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen in 1937 (Dinesen was her maiden name, though I have yet to figure out where the Isak came from). The events in the book take place over seventeen years -- from her arrival in Africa (to marry her second cousin, the Swedish Baron Bror Von Blixen-Finecke) in 1913 to her departure following the failure of her coffee plantation in 1931. If you finish reading Out of Africa and then read the Wikipedia blurb on Karen Blixen's life, you'll get a little angry. Why? Well, to start with, the Wikipedia blurb shows that Blixen actually had an interesting life, she just chose not to write about any of those bits. (Syphilis! Engaged to her second-cousin after failing to win his brother! Unfaithful husband! Divorce and retaining control of the plantation! Affair with Denys Finch-Hatton! Creating a personal legend of her own life!) In any case, it's a bit frustrating to read a "memoir" when very little of that comes into play. She focuses entirely on her relationship with Africa... so you'd think you might get a little of the husband or the lover, but no -- she barely mentions her husband at all and Denys is simply depicted as a friend.

The book doesn't follow much linear style, except in the fifth and final part where the coffee plantation fails and so Blixen sells it off and leaves Africa. Instead, it's comprised of a number of anecdotes about her life, the farm, and the people and animals on it. With just the hint of the title, the reader knows that everything cannot end well and that the author will be leaving Africa, but that might not be enough to hint at the elegiac tone which suffuses the entire work. It's melancholy and full of longing, with beautiful descriptions of the landscape and atmosphere. Blixen is writing about an Africa that no longer exists, a colonialist occupation on its last legs that is still struggling for elegance and grandeur in a land where grandeur is not high on the priority list (and, thankfully, not high on Blixen's). The Natives that populate the country aren't slaves and Blixen is quite kind to them, but the amount of condescension that radiates from her work is a bit mind-boggling. There are many ways to justify this and soften the blow, but the racism is inescapable. Clearly, Blixen wouldn't call herself a racist and she repeatedly calls many Natives her "friends," but that really isn't the relationship that's described Given the time period and the environment, it's not terribly surprising and her attitude might even have been seen as a bit progressive in comparison to others, but it's still there. It's the idea of looking upon the Natives as lesser creatures who need to be educated, adjusted, and changed. She might have some form of nostalgia for their way of life (and even tries to help it struggle on at times), but her perspective is the vision of someone who knows it will not last and it's probably for their own good that it not. Entire groups of people are lumped together in her descriptions of their temperament and outlook as she tries to explain to a European (or Western) audience exactly what these people are like and it's the rare individual that is singled out for any defining characteristics. There were animals that were described with greater detail than any human individuals. In general, her European focus on work, schedule, and order causes her to paint the Natives as lazy and ignorant, with the occasional admission some of them are clever and that the general populace might have something going for them that the average European has lost. There are a few instances where the activities of the Natives versus those of the Europeans are drawn into stark contrast -- particularly as it concerns justice, penance, and, apparently, logic. There's even the occasional time that she sides with the Native's perspective (though more often than not, she presents it to the reader as an oddity to puzzle or chuckle over). It isn't that she believes them incapable of learning how to do things... but again, here comes the paternalistic attitude. At one point, she even suggests that they might never develop the same attitude towards technology (her examples of this are airplanes and automobiles, for perspective) because they themselves never developed these things. They went from zero to sixty and as a result will never feel the way that others do whose civilizations developed these wonders. The issue I have here is not that they will have different ideas, but that her focus is on how they will never develop a specific attitude, as though there's only one good viewpoint here to which one can aspire. It's all so unfortunate, as Blixen clearly loves the land and the people, but I fear that her love is grounded in a system that could not endure, and therefore is easy to embrace for those who relish a tragic and doomed love.

Given the fact that the book is comprised of incidents and jumps around a bit, I found this terribly easy to set down after reading a few pages and rather hard to pick up again. Perhaps, too, I might have been more inclined to read things if I felt that Blixen weren't deliberately leaving out elements of her daily life. The complete absence of her husband is a gaping hole and while it does lend her the image of doing everything on her own, she doesn't go into enough detail about her own life to justify the responsibility. One also feels that Blixen's narrative is set up so she can pick and choose stories based on what she wishes to convey about this lost time and place... and there's the distinct sense that she isn't always being entirely honest. I don't even necessarily mean her real relationship with Denys Finch-Hatton (because if one wishes to conceal a relationship, that's one's own business)... but the way her narrative gravitated towards him and his death would allow even a child in school to believe that all Blixen's cards weren't on the table. Whether it was that some things were too painful to dwell on or that they didn't fit into her particular image of her time there, it's enough to drive one to Wikipedia to fill in the gaps.

I wouldn't like to give the impression that my entire experience with Out of Africa was totally negative. Her writing style is quite interesting (though Danish, Blixen wrote in English) and I'm not sure if it's the fact that English isn't her native language which gives everything a detached, matter-of-fact tone to it, or if she's adopting it to seem like a more justified observer of human nature. When I looked up discussion questions for the book, many focused on the idea of finding one's self, but no one in my book club actually thought the book was terribly concerned about Blixen "finding" herself. Yes, she was changed by her experiences in Africa, but without seeing any trajectory of self, it was hard to tell just how changed she ultimately had been. It is, however, really quite fascinating to read the account of this time period, if only because there's always some strange nostalgia for bygone days that feature this twisted mix of disparate wealth and social classes. I wouldn't necessarily say that Blixen was whole-heartedly in favor of colonialism, but given the choice between the way things were and the way things became, she'd have preserved the system just as it was. There's never really a thought to whether the Natives would be better off without the Europeans' interference. Everything about the work seems to be looking back without any desire to look forward, which is really quite a shame.

So I am pleased that I slogged my way through and I do recognize that Africa meant something special to Karen Blixen, but I'm afraid I wouldn't be endorsing this for school reading and discussion unless the kids are old enough to understand that these opinions about Native peoples aren't quite ideal. Some of the prose is lovely indeed and once in a while, Blixen succeeded in making me long for to sit on a veranda, surrounded by African scenery, but it was really only the landscape that inspired longing... and perhaps the wish that the Europeans hadn't been quite so hasty to claim the world as their own and displace the original inhabitants for their selfish gain. Better a memoir of the time be preserved than the system it discusses, and at least it's an account to remind us of the many mistakes in our world's history. If you're reading this to discuss with others, it could be quite worth it, but I'll not recommend that anyone trudge through this on their own. I feel a bit terrible for saying so when the book in question is often called a classic, but so it goes.

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