Thursday, June 11, 2009

87. Out of Africa – Isak Dineson

Read in September 2007.
History: The book, first published in 1937, recounts events of the seventeen years when Blixen made her home in Kenya, then British East Africa. The book is a lyrical meditation on Blixen’s life on her coffee plantation, as well as a tribute to some of the people who touched her life there. It is also a vivid snapshot of African colonial life in the last decades of the British Empire. Blixen wrote the book in English and then translated it into Danish.
Plot: Karen Dinesen moved to British East Africa in late 1913, at the age of 28, to marry her second cousin, the Swedish Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke, and make a life in the British colony known today as Kenya. The young Baron and Baroness bought farmland in the Ngong hills about ten miles southwest of Nairobi, which at the time was still shaking off its rough origins as a supply depot on the Uganda Railway.
The Blixens had planned to raise dairy cattle, but Bror developed their farm as a coffee plantation instead. It was managed by Europeans, including, at the start, Karen’s brother Thomas – but most of the labor was provided by “squatters.” This was the colonial term for local Kikuyu tribes people who guaranteed the owners 180 days of labor in exchange for wages and the right to live and farm on the uncultivated lands which, in many cases, had simply been theirs before the British arrived and claimed them.[
When the First World War drove coffee prices up, the Blixen family invested in the business, and in 1917 Karen and Bror expanded their holdings to six thousand acres. The new acquisitions included the site of the house which features so prominently in Out of Africa. The Blixens’ marriage started well – Karen and Bror went on hunting safaris which Karen later remembered as paradisiacal. But it was not ultimately successful: Bror, a talented hunter and a well-liked companion, was an unfaithful husband and a poor businessman. In 1921 the couple separated, and in 1925 they were divorced; Karen took over the management of the farm on her own.
Blixen moved back to the family’s estate of Rungstedlund and lived with her mother; there she took up again the writing career that she had begun, but abandoned, in her youth. In 1934 she published a fiction collection, Nine Tales, now known as Seven Gothic Tales, and in 1937 she published her Kenyan memoir, Out of Africa. The book’s title was likely derived from the title of a poem, "Ex Africa," she had written in 1915, while recuperating in a Danish hospital from her fight with syphilis. The poem’s title is probably an abbreviation of the famous ancient Latin adage (credited to sages from Aristotle to Pliny to Erasmus) Ex Africa semper aliquid novi, which translates as “Out of Africa, always something new
Review: In Dinesen’s Out of Africa the writer describes the land as if they were living in a paradise or in a fairy tale. There are two main reasons for this: first, the land, animals and natives complement each other; second, natives and animals when given the choice between freedom and oppression, they will themselves to die rather than to live without freedom. A minor theme of this novel is that whites and natives complement each other, so that one cannot live without the other.
Opening Line: “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”
Closing Line: “The outline of the mountain was slowly smoothed and leveled out by the hand of distance.”
Quotes: They scorn any softness in a man with much cruelty; and with great personal sacrifices they hold up their price.”
Rating: Mediocre.

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