Karen Blixen moved to Kenya in 1914, and spent almost twenty years in that country. By many measures, her life in Africa was a failure. She was bankrupted; got divorced; caught a serious venereal disease; and lost her lover in a plane crash. However, Blixen clearly loved the country of Kenya very deeply, and Out of Africa is primarily a record of that love affair.
The book is divided into five sections, each on a certain theme – ‘Visitors to the Farm’ for example – and thus is non-linear and not chronological, being largely a collection of her impressions. Blixen has a sharp eye and a lucid style, and thus these loose impressions cohere to form a very revealing portrait of a short period in Kenyan history.
She has in particular a deep love for the African landscape, and writes of it movingly. Here is a fine observation from one of her early safaris:
“I had seen a heard of buffalo, one hundred and twenty-nine of them, come out of the morning mist under a copper sky, one by one, as if the dark and massive, iron-like animals with the mighty horizontally swung horns were not approaching, but were being created before my eyes and sent out as they were finished.”
Blixen also writes extensively about her relationships with local people, primarily the Kikuyu, Masai, and Somalis of her area. Some commentators have expressed uneasiness with this aspect of Out of Africa , and indeed, there are some passages that are very troubling to modern ears; at one point, for example, discussing how careful the Somalis are about ablutions, she tells us confidently that the “Masai are a dirty nation.” However, in my opinion, her love of and respect for the people she lives with is very clear, and one is thus able to place her language in the context of her period. She writes admiringly of the cosmopolitanism of the Swahili, for example, and of the culture of the Somalis; and is clearly really distraught at parting with her Somali servant Farah, who features as her adviser throughout the book. Clearly she was regarded affectionately by the people who knew her, as the Kikuyu do her the singular honour of organising an Ngoma of the Ancients (a kind of dancing ceremony) for her when she has at last to leave Kenya.
The last section of the book, ‘Farewell to the Farm,’ is immensely sad, detailing how Blixen was forced to sell her land and leave Africa. In this section, she also recounts the death of Denys Finch-Hatton, the man assumed to be her lover. This relationship is what the movie OUT OF AFRICA is based on, and thus may be thought of as her grand romance, but my feeling was that her great love was in fact no individual, but the country and the people of Kenya. I found the book a moving tribute to a very great continent, by one of her many immigrant children.
Sarah Norman is a Zimbabwean who splits her time between Harare and Nairobi. She documents her reading life in the blog White Whale (www.booksof2010.blogspot.com)