Out of Africa

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Karen Blixen's extraordinary love affair with Africa began when she and her husband went to Kenya to plant coffee in 1913. The marriage and the plantation failed, but Baroness Blixen's passion for Africa remained.

Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass, presented for the first time in one volume, were written when she returned to her native Denmark and are full of her longing to return to the country and the people she came to love and admire. Her writing combines intelligence, compassion and an acute understanding of an alien culture. 


My Review:


“Between the river in the mellow English landscape and the African mountain ridge, ran the path of this life. ... The bowstring was released on the bridge at Eton, the arrow described its orbit, and hit the obelisk in the Ngong Hills.” 
― Karen Blixen, Out of Africa

This is a group read I participated in, and I am certain that I will not be able to do it enough honor with my review in attempting to convey this rich, lyrical and beautiful memoir of Karen Blixen’s years she spent running a coffee plantation in British East Africa in 1914. I will try to insert a few of my favorite passages to give you a glimpse of its essence.

This to me was so beautifully written; it does not read as a non-fiction book. Karen Blixen had a gift of understanding life. Her intrinsic ways with the land, the people and its’ animals, her kindness and strength simply shine through in so many passages of this book. As a worldly woman of its time (she was born in 1885), she started writing down her thoughts and memories after her return back to her home country in Denmark at the age of 49. These were also adapted into film starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford in 1986, winning the Academy award for best picture of the year, which I will watch next. 

This book may not be for everyone, though I find it a journey to appreciate. The descriptions of the land and the people she encountered in Africa are vibrant and easy to imagine as you read.

“Up in this 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.” 
― Karen Blixen, Out of Africa

Her love for this place shines through and through.

“When you have caught the rhythm of Africa, you find out that it is the same in all her music.” 
― Karen Blixen, Out of Africa

She had gained the trust and understanding of the different tribes around her. It took a long time and communicating partly with hands and feet to get there. 

“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.” 
– Karen Blixen, Out of Africa 

Technology was rarely used in these parts of the world. 

“I have never seen an old Native who, for things which moved by themselves without apparent interference by man or by the forces of Nature, expressed anything but distrust and a certain feeling of shame.”
– Karen Blixen, Out of Africa

Wild animals were all around her.

“No domestic animal can be as still as a wild animal. The civilized people have lost the aptitude of stillness, and must take lessons in silence from the wild before they are accepted by it.” 
― Karen Blixen, Out of Africa

“As in civilized countries all people have a chronic bad conscience towards the slums, and feel uncomfortable when they think of them, so in Africa you have got a bad conscience and feel a pang, when you think of the oxen. But towards the oxen on the farm, I felt as, I suppose, a king will be feeling towards his slums: ”You are I, and I am you.”.”
― Karen Blixen, Out of Africa

Herself, she had several dogs, horses and cows. And in this book, she actually spends a lot of different parts, talking about all the different wildlife of Africa. Here a passage of Giraffes she described that were on a ship, as they were shipped to Hamburg Germany, to a zoo. You can tell her dislike of the use of animals in that way. 

“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 around 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 worked in which nothing is ever happening.”
― Karen Blixen, Out of Africa

The natives often wondered, when she took a plane up high, if she actually saw God?

“When you have flown over the Rift Valley and the volcanoes of Suswa and Longonot, you have traveled far and have been to the lands on the other side of the moon. You may at other times fly low enough to see the animals on the plains and to feel towards them as God did when he had just created them, and before he commissioned Adam to give them names.”
― Karen Blixen, Out of Africa

In other parts, she spent time explaining about the vegetation, and the drought. Some weeks were sweltering hot, and at some point there was an infestation of insects.

“But the ancient mango trees have a dense dark-green foliage and give benignant shade; they create a circular pool of black coolness underneath them. More than any other tree that I know of, they suggest a place to meet in, a center for human intercourse; they are as sociable as the village-wells. Big markets are held under the mango trees, and the ground round their trunks is covered with hen-coops, and piled up with watermelons.”
― Karen Blixen, Out of Africa

I do feel that Blixen understood and valued the native’s ways and customs. Every tribe had different rules and ways of living or dying. And many friends come and go in her life on the farm. Some friendships formed long lasting bonds and mutual understanding and respect. Some were of a shorter wile, but none were given any more or less time in her writing. I felt there was more equality and sense of mutualism as all worked together and had their place. As an “outsider”, Blixen was very open minded and respectful, well-educated, strong and sensitive to the matters of her “squatters” on the land. 

“The pleasure of the true dreamer does not lie in the substance of the dream, but in this: that there things happen without any interference from his side, and altogether outside his control. Great landscapes create themselves, long splendid views, bright and delicate colors, roads, houses, which he has never seen or heard of.
― Karen Blixen, Out of Africa

Towards the end of the book, you get a sense of her sadness about having to leave Africa. 

“It was not I who was going away, I did not have it in my power to leave Africa, but it was the country that was slowly and gravely withdrawing from me, like the sea in ebb-tide. The procession that as passing here, -it was in reality my strong pulpy young dancers of yesterday and the day before yesterday, who were withering before my eyes, who were passing away forever. They were going in their own style, gently, in a dance, the people were with me, and I with the people, well content.”
― Karen Blixen, Out of Africa

Although I have included a few quotations from the book, it is simply not enough to tell everything in between. There is much that happened and many details about the people, the land and the animals and their stories. I simply can only supply a glimpse. 

I felt very content reading this book. It found me at the right time you could say. My edition has the “Shadows on the Grass” essays in the back, which she wrote 25 years later I believe, and I may read them as well. There wasn’t really an “end” or a summarized closure to “Out of Africa”, so maybe this will have that feel to it retrospectively. I am rating this 5 stars, since I felt that I was able to get to know a person so well through the writing, without her ever much saying anything about herself at all. It was more like a window into her world of thoughts and so well done, it will certainly stay with me for a while. Again, not for everyone, but I enjoyed it.