Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

“Looking back on a sojourn in the African highlands, you are struck by your feeling of having lived for a time up in the air. The sky was rarely more than pale blue or violet, with a profusion of mighty, weightless, ever-changing clouds towering up and sailing on it, but it has a blue vigour in it, and at a short distance it painted the ranges of hills and the woods a fresh deep blue. In the middle of the day the air was alive over the land, like a flame burning’ it scintillated, waved, and shone like running water, mirrored and doubled all objects, and created a great Fata Morgana. Up in this high air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be.”

In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway called Out of Africa one of the best books written on Africa that he’d ever read. Based on this recommendation, and the fact that it’s on The List, I decided to give the book a try.

First thoughts: I can see why Hemingway liked it so much, since a good portion of the story is hunting-related. I imagine Hemingway would have even given Twilight a positive review if it had at least three scenes where the heroine shoots a lion. Aside from all the hunting stories, the writing in the book is truly gorgeous, and Blixen’s descriptions of Africa are definitely worth the praise they’ve been given. She’s at her best when writing about incredibly sad subjects, like how her farm went under and she had to sell off her possessions one by one, and my favorite mini-story in the whole book was about Blixen seeing a pair of giraffes about to be shipped off to a zoo in Europe, and ends: “As to us, we shall have to find someone badly trangressing against us, before we can in decency ask the Giraffes to forgive us our transgressions against them.”

Things get a bit hairy, however, whenever Blixen is describing the actual people in Africa. Her view of the Natives (always capitalized) is perfectly appropriate for her time period, but will make 21st-century readers a little uncomfortable. She’s fond of making impossibly broad generalizations about Africans (“All Natives are gamblers”) and often compares them to some wild animal in order to explain their behavior to her white readers. It’s historically accurate, of course, but she sometimes comes off sounding like your pretentious friend who studied abroad in South America for a semester and always tells people that Chile is actually pronounced “Cheel-ay.”

The focus of the book is Africa, only, to the extent that Blixen absolutely refuses to tell us anything else. Did you know that her husband gave her syphillis, or that she later carried on a long affair with Denys Finch-Hatton? I do, but only because the book’s introduction told me. There’s very little of Blixen’s personal life in this book, and very few of her thoughts that don’t relate to Africa. Africa, and everything it meant to Blixen during her time there, is the main character in this book, and there isn’t much room left for anything else.

Verdict: three out of five stars

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

  1. I clicked over to your blog through Ana’s link and I have to say it is wonderful!

    As for Out of Africa, I recently borrowed it from the library (for the 1001 group read of it on GoodReads) but unfortunately never got to it. I have to admit I was rather hesitant about the encounter with the stereotypes you describe (although of course, those can be related to the times in which it was written, it is always hard to figure out how/if one should mention them on a blog and it makes me nervous about actually starting such books with the knowledge of writing posts about them later). Okay, that sentence derailed. Anyway, I think you hit the nail on the head with how you wrote about that part of the book. And along the way, you interested me in reading it because it does sound like its beautifully written.

  2. Apparently several book bloggers have been linking to me lately – I’ll have to thank them for the increase in traffic! As for the stereotypes in the book, while they’re certainly present, none of them are really hateful in any way; they’re more the type that leave you feeling slightly uncomfortable. You definitely should read the book, because as you said, it’s beautifully written and I don’t think you’ll regret it.

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