Saturday, August 20, 2016

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

I knew nothing about this book when I picked it up. That is sometimes my favorite way to encounter a text. And it took me a while to figure out what I was dealing with. It wasn’t until page 26, after all, that the text even clued me into the fact that my narrator was a woman.

… Kamante spoke;--“Msabu,” he said, and gave me a great glance. The Natives use this Indian word when they address white women ...

Prior to that I had no real idea, and I was totally fine with not knowing. Part of me, in fact, hoped that the text would never reveal gender, but rather allow the reader to experience the story without that trapping, allowing either, male or female, to make the story their own.

A few minutes on Wikipedia, however, told me that Isak Dinesen was the pen name of Karen Blixen, a Danish author and Baroness, and that Out of Africa was a work based on her experiences living for a time in Kenya.

And that’s pretty much how the blurb pasted onto the frontispiece of my worn and used copy of the work describes it.

In this book, the author of Seven Gothic Tales gives a true account of her life on her plantation in Kenya. She tells with classic simplicity of the ways of the country and the natives: of the beauty of the Ngong Hills and coffee trees in blossom: of her guests, from the Prince of Wales to Knudsen, the old charcoal burner, who visited her: of primitive festivals: of big game that were her near neighbors--lions, rhinos, elephants, zebras, buffaloes--and of Lulu, the little gazelle who came to live with her, unbelievably ladylike and beautiful.

You can’t dispute the accuracy of this description, which I initially skipped over, hoping to preserve the mystery. These are certainly the subjects that Dinesen describes in Out of Africa. But there is so much more going on here, so much more than a pastoral tale of a European dilettante in the colonially-protected wilds of darkest Africa. Because Dinesen reveals a sensitive understanding of that continent, and, more importantly, of the people who lived there, both before and after the Europeans came.

The natives were Africa in flesh and blood. The tall extinct volcano if Longonot that rises above the Rift Valley, the broad Mimosa trees along the rivers, the Elephant and the Giraffe, were not more truly Africa than the Natives were,--small figures in an immense scenery. All were different expressions of one idea, variations upon the same theme. It was not a congenial upheaping of heterogeneous atoms, but a heterogeneous upheaping of congenial atoms, as in the case of the oak-leaf and the acorn and the object made from oak. We ourselves, in boots, and in our constant great hurry, often jar with the landscape. The Natives are in accordance with it, and when the tall slim, dark, and dark-eyed people travel,--always one by one, so that even the great Native veins of traffic are narrow foot-paths,--or work the soil, or herd their cattle, or hold their big dances, or tell you a tale, it is Africa wandering, dancing and entertaining you. In the highlands you remember the Poet’s words:

Noble found I
ever the Native,
and insipid the Immigrant.

The natives were Africa. That sentiment pretty well sets the tone for much of the book that follows. Africa, in her understanding of it, is not a place, but a people. And as Dinesen uses her expressive prose to reflect on the basic nature of these people, these native Africans, and of Africa itself, she does not shy away from positive comparisons to the habits and biases of her fellow Europeans.

The lack of prejudice in the Natives is a striking thing, for you expect to find dark taboos in the primitive people. It is due, I believe, to their acquaintance with a variety of races and tribes, and to the lively human intercourse that was brought upon East Africa, first by the old traders of ivory and slaves, and in our days by the settlers and big-game hunters. Nearly every Native, down to the little herd-boys of the plains, has in his day stood face to face with a whole range of nations as different from one another, and to him, as a Sicilian to an Esquimo: Englishmen, Jews, Boers, Arabs, Somali Indians, Swaheli, Masai and Kavirondo. As far as receptivity of ideas goes, the Native is more of a man of the world than the suburban or provincial settler or missionary, who has grown up in a uniform community and with a set of stable ideas. Much of the misunderstanding between the white people and the Natives arises from this fact.

And she frequently highlights the ways in which the two people--Africans and Europeans--struggle to understand each other.

The Natives, if they are not paralyzed and benumbed by the terror of the unknown, growl and grumble much in hospital, and invent schemes for getting away. Death is one of these; they do not fear it. The Europeans who have built and equipped the hospitals, and who are working in them, and have with much trouble got the patients dragged there, complain with bitterness that the Natives know nothing of gratitude, and that it is the same what you do to them.

To white people there is something vexatious and mortifying in this state of mind in the Natives. It is indeed the same what you do to them; you can do but little, and what you do disappears, and will never be heard of again; they do not thank you, and they bear you no malice, and even should you want to, you cannot do anything about it. It is an alarming quality; it seems to annul your existence as an individual human being, and to inflict upon you a role not of your own choosing, as if you were a phenomenon in Nature, as if you were the weather.

This attitude had to be quite a shock to the early European visitors, especially the hardy and adventurous kind of European willing to leave the safety of home and hearth for the dangers of the Dark Continent. Europeans, remember, whose culture had for centuries been based on the idea of conquest and colonization, of mastery over the native world. From them to be relegated by their latest prize to the status of a natural force, like the weather, not to be opposed but borne, not to seek battle against but shelter from--it must have been especially unnerving.

But Out of Africa is still more than this. Neither wholly the pastoral tale of the pasted frontispiece, nor simply a sensitive testament to the uniqueness of Africa and its people, it is also a kind of call to action. Dinesen is striving, I believe, to communicate with her largely European readers the destructiveness of their simpleminded approach to Africa. And rarely is she more eloquent on this score then when she invokes her moving parables, obvious now, but probably less so when the work was written.

In the harbour Mombasa lay a rusty German cargo-steamer, homeward bound. I passed her in Ali bin Salim’s rowing boat with his Swaheli rowers, on my way to the island and back. Upon the deck there stood a tall wooden cases, and above the edge of the case rose the heads of two Giraffes. They were, Farah, who had been on board the boat, told me, coming from Portuguese East Africa, and were going to Hamburg, to a travelling Menagerie.

The Giraffes turned their delicate heads from the one side to the other, as if they were surprised, which they might well be. They had not seen the Sea before. They could only just have room to stand in the narrow case. The world had suddenly shrunk, changed and closed round them.

They could not know or imagine the degradation to which they were sailing. For they were proud and innocent creatures, gentle amblers of the great plains; they had not the least knowledge of captivity, cold, stench, smoke, and mange, nor of the terrible boredom in a world in which nothing is ever happening.

Crowds, in dark smelly clothes, will be coming in from the wind and sleet of the streets to gaze on the Giraffes, and to realize man’s superiority over the dumb world. They will point and laugh at the long slim necks when the graceful, patient, smoky-eyed heads are raised over the railing of the menagerie; they look much too long in there. The children will be frightened at the sight and cry, or they will fall in love with the Giraffes, and hand them bread. Then the fathers and mothers will think the Giraffes nice beasts, and believe that they are giving them a good time.

In the long years before them, will the Giraffes sometimes dream of their lost country? Where are they now, where have they gone to, the grass and the thorn-trees, the rivers, water-holes and the blue mountains? The high sweet air over the plains has lifted and withdrawn. Where have the other Giraffes gone to, that were side by side with them when they set going, and cantered over the undulating land? They have left them, they have all gone, and it seems that they are never coming back.

In the night where is the full moon?

The Giraffes stir,and wake up in the caravan of the Menagerie, in their narrow box that smells of rotten straw and beer.

Good-bye, good-bye, I wish for you that you may die on the journey, both of you, so that not one of the little noble heads, that are now raised, surprised, over the edge of the case, against the blue sky of Mombasa, shall be left to turn from one side to the other, all alone, in Hamburg, where no one knows Africa.

As to us, we shall have to find someone badly transgressing against us, before we can in decency ask the Giraffes to forgive us our transgressions against them.

The Giraffes, of course, are offered as a symbol of all that is unique and precious about Africa.

So, in parable and in memoir, Dinesen’s work is not only a creative endeavor to capture and preserve the unique beauty and truth of Africa and its people, it is also, at times, a desperate attempt to communicate that uniqueness to her fellow, often imperial-minded Europeans. Given my own literary bent, her understanding of her difficult task seems most poignant when she decides to adopt the cultural trappings the Europeans might best understand.

All my life I have held that you can class people according to how they may be imagined behaving to King Lear. You could not reason with King Lear, any more than with an old Kikuyu, and from the first he demanded too much of everybody; but he was a king. It is true that the African Native has not handed over his country to the white man in a magnificent gesture, so that the case is in some ways different from that of the old king and his daughters; the white men took over the country as a Protectorate. But I bore in mind that not very long ago, at a time that could still be remembered, the Natives of the country had held their land undisputed, and had never heard of the white men and their laws. Within the general insecurity of their existence the land to them was still steadfast. Some of them were carried off by the slave-traders and were sold at slave-markets, but some of them always remained. Those who were taken away, in their exile and thralldom all over the Eastern world, would long back to the highlands, for that was their own land. The old dark clear-eyed Native of Africa, and the old dark clear-eyed Elephant,--they are alike, you see them standing on the ground, weighty with such impressions of the world around them as have been slowly gathered and heaped up in their dim minds; they are themselves features of the land. Either one of the two might find himself quite perplexed by the sight of the great changes that are going on all round him, and might ask you where he was, and you would have to answer him in the words of Kent: “In your own kingdom, Sir.”

But as much as the people of my own literary heritage may appreciate the comparison of the Native African with Lear, the most subtle and powerful literary comparison in Out of Africa is not to Shakespeare but to Homer.

One night as I looked up I met these profound attentive eyes and after a moment he spoke. “Msabu,” he said, “do you believe yourself that you can write a book?”

I answered that I did not know.

To figure to oneself a conversation with Kamante one must imagine a long, pregnant, as if deeply responsible, pause before each phrase. All Natives are masters in the art of the pause and thereby give perspective to a discussion.

Kamante now made such a long pause, and then said, “I do not believe it.”

I had nobody else to discuss my book with; I laid down my paper and asked him why not. I now found that he had been thinking the conversation over before, and prepared himself for it; he stood with the Odyssey itself behind his back, and here he laid it on the table.

“Look, Msabu,” he said, “this is a good book. It hangs together from the one end to the other. Even if you hold it up and shake it strongly, it does not come to pieces. The man who had written it is very clever. But what you write,” he went on, both with scorn and with a sort of friendly compassion, “is some here and some there. When people forget to close the door it blows about, even down on the floor and you are angry. It will not be a good book.”

I explained to him that in Europe the people would be able to fix it all up together.

Dinesen, of course, is writing here about writing the book she has written. In other words, the book she is writing in this scene with the native Kamante is the same book that I found myself reading, some 80 years later, in my comfortable living room chair. I still remember the pleasant nostalgia that realization filled me with, and how it made me even more curious about what she would say about these accusations from Kamante.

“Will your book then be as heavy as this?” Kamante asked, weighing the Odyssey.

When he saw that I hesitated he handed it to me in order that I might judge for myself.

“No,” I said, “it will not, but there are other books in the library, as you know, that are lighter.”

“And as hard?” he asked.

I said it was expensive to make a book so hard.

He stood for some time in silence and then expressed his greater hopes of my book, and perhaps also repentance of his doubts, by picking up the scattered pages from the floor and laying them on the table. Still he did not go away, but stood by the table and waited, and then asked me gravely: “Msabu, what is there in books?”

A ha. Kamante, unable to read, is a stranger to books, and can only approach them with regard to their weight, their feel, their look. But there is a wonder there. A wonder that is the truest treasure that any teller of tales can find.

As an illustration, I told him the story from the Odyssey of the hero and Polyphemus, and how Odysseus had called himself Noman, had put out Polyphemus’ eye, and had escaped tied up under the belly of a ram.

Kamante listened with interest and expressed as his opinion, that the ram must have been of the same race as the sheep of Mr. Long, of Elmentaita, which he had seen at the cattle-show in Nairobi. He came back to Polyphemus, and asked me if he had been black, like the Kikuyu. When I said no, he wanted to know if Odysseus had been of my own tribe or family.

“How did he,” he asked, “say the word, Noman, in his own language? Say it.”

“He said Outis,” I told him. “He called himself Outis, which in his language means Noman.”

He is trying to understand. Kamante is trying to interpret this ancient myth through the filter of his own culture and understanding. But now the really interesting thing happens.

“Must you write about the same thing?” he asked me.

“No,” I said, “people can write of anything they like. I might write of you.”

Can they? Dinesen is going out of her way here to connect her book to the Odyssey. And despite the focus of that connection being squarely on their differences, a careful reader should be sensitive to their similarities as well.

Kamante who had opened up in the course of the talk, here suddenly closed again, he looked down himself and asked me in a low voice, what part of him I would write about.

“I might write about the time when you were ill and were out with the sheep on the plain,” I said, “what did you think of then?”

His eyes wandered over the room, up and down; in the end he said vaguely: “Sejui--I know not.”

“Were you afraid?” I asked him.

After a pause, “Yes,” he said firmly, “all the boys on the plain are afraid sometimes.”

“Of what were you afraid,” I said.

Kamante stood silent for a little while, his face became collected a deep, his eyes gazed inward. Then he looked at me with a little wry grimace:

“Of Outis,” he said. “The boys on the plain are afraid of Outis.”

Kamante does not relate to Odysseus, the way a wandering European like Dinesen might. He relates instead to Polyphemus, the simple native tricked by the freebooting outsider. And in that revelation it is clear to see that the differences between Out of Africa and the Odyssey that matter to Dinesen have nothing to do with its physical construction and materials, and everything to do with the characters who propel the story forward.

A few days later, I heard Kamante explain to the other houseboys that in Europe the book which I was writing could be made to stick together, and that with terrible expense it could even be made as hard as the Odyssey, which was again displayed. He himself, however, did not believe that it could be made blue.

This return to the similarities underscores that Out of Africa should be read as Dinesen’s Odyssey, with the Natives, and more generally, Africa itself, that Kamante represents, as its hero.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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