Nonfiction: Out of Africa

Author: Isak Dinesen, 1937
Genre: Memoir, Travelogue
Format: Ebook, 286 pages

I normally don’t read memoirs. I mean, what could be more self-indulgent than to produce hundreds of pages of biased view of your own life and expect others to be interested in it? Granted, memoirs give an opportunity to look into lives of those who fascinate us, or even offer an intimate perspective on history. But that is why I prefer to read private diaries of famous writers, poets and thinkers – pages that meant to document honest thoughts, not manufactured specifically for the large audience to judge and dissect. For this reason I expected to take Out of Africa with a grain of salt. My precautions turned out to be unnecessary, because the memoir is more of a tender love letter to Kenya, its people and nature. It had very little to do with the author herself or other Europeans around her, and that was why I enjoyed it nevermind all my prejudices toward memoirs in general.

I am going to state this right off the bat: Out of Africa is incredibly colonial. But what can a modern reader expect from a book published in the midst of colonialism? Dinesen actually philosophizes about the ownership of Africa in one of her brief essays. “It seems to you, as you read the case through, a strange, a humiliating fact that the Europeans should not, in Africa, have power to throw the African out of existence. The country is his Native land, and whatever you do to him, when he goes he goes by his own free will, and because he does not want to stay. Who is to take responsibility for what happens in a house? The man who owns it, who has inherited it.” She advocates the rights of Africans, even though it might seems strange and contradicting to her contemporaries in Europe. The entire book is somehow an advocate of the fact, and Dinesen acts as a bridge between two civilizations. That said, the author is far from being globalized in the modern sense; she is very much ethnocentric in her views, but her experiences in Africa make her far more accepting to the other race than majority of colonialists she mentions.

On one hand, she exasperates me with confusing appreciation with animalistic loyalty. When she takes in an antisocial little boy Kamante and he brings her a special delicacy of his people, she compares his actions, – “as even a civilized dog, that has lived for a long time with people, will place a bone on the floor before you as a present.” How about just saying thank you, lady? And how about her statement that “the civilized people have lost the aptitude of stillness?” You mean as opposed to Natives, I suppose? That kind of sentence makes me wonder about the pancake view of Africans upheld by European colonialists. And I call it “pancake” for all its flatness and floppiness, and stubbornness at which one side can never meet the other. Still, Dinesen is not as bad as other adventurers living in Africa. When she calls upon her friend-doctor to help one of the Native women in a difficult childbirth, he comes, but tells her not ask him such a favor ever again, for his patients are exclusively the white elite. I think I almost dropped the book at that point. That of course pales in comparison with the case when a white colonialist beat a black child to death for riding his horse. During the trial all the doctors summoned for professional opinion on the cause of death agreed that it was the child’s will to die that caused the tragedy, and not the ferocious wounds left by his master. Only one doctor tried to point out the absurdness of the statement, but was shut down because he’s never treated black patients. Are you freaking kidding me?! Yes, after such incidents Dinesen does look like the next ambassador of anti-racism.

Now to come back to the positive traits of the author, she does seem to resent the colonialist sentiment so popular with her friends. At the end of the book we learn about her lover Denys, but Dinesen is extremely cautious of specifying the intimate nature of her relationship with the man. He is presented in a way a friend might be presented, but the way she gushes about his love of Africa betrays her true feelings for him. When he dies in a plane crash, all her friends know the news, but keep it a secret from her for some time, until she is taken aside and told of it in private. Neither her tone nor emotions are betrayed as she writes, but between the lines the reader can see her anguish. Her descriptions of a sorrowful rain during his burial paint a picture of horrible loss and infinite longing. Through Denys we learn of Dinesen’s true feelings of Africa. She says that “Danys had watched and followed all the ways of African Highlands, and better than any other white man, he had known their soil and seasons.” Ultimately, these are the traits that she remembers most of him. Perhaps that is so because she had seen a common soul in him and his love for Africa was reflecting her own love for it. It is hard to judge, since Dinesen avoids writing anything too personal: she never mentions her divorce from her husband or her tender affair with Denys. But trying to picture the life and character of this woman based solely on her perspective of a distant continent might not be such a tricky thing after all.

This is my 27th book from the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, and I still have a laborious way to go. Hopefully any other memoirs on the list will prove as fascinating and thought-provoking as this one.

2 comments

  1. I struggled with the same issues with this book and actually quit reading it. I guess I need to finish it.

  2. I tend to ignore the issues when it comes to older books. I mean, considering the believes of the time, you cannot expect anything else. Instead I focused on her great writing style, and beautiful memories of culture and nature of Africa.

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