Out of Africa is a memoir by the Danish poet and writer Karen Blixen, and describes her life on the coffee plantation she owned in Kenya between 1914 and 1931. It is famous for the 1985 film starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, and Streep’s repeated chanting in an affected Danish accent of the line “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong hills”- which is also the first line in the book.
Two things are central in the book, one being the African landscape and the people that live in it, and the second is the art of telling a story. Out of Africa is a memoir and, unlike the famous movie, doesn’t have a plot. Karen Blixen tells her story in a meandering style by describing certain scenes, people and events taken from her decade and a half’s worth of the experience of living on the coffee farm.
Of course, this makes the book hard to describe. Blixen doesn’t touch on any subject at length, but rather wanders from one topic to the other, ranging from a shooting accident on her farm to African birds and the Swahili numeral system. However, her writing never feels dry or dull: Blixen was a poet and she wrote her memoirs like one. Among the most memorable chapters are her short yet amusing and touching sketches of the people who played a part in life on the farm, from her European friends to the native Kikuyu tribe who lived and worked on the form.
Her descriptions of nature are beautiful. As you come through her writing to see the land as she did, you realise it is the element that ties the story and all the people and animals in it together. One of my favourite short chapters is about the iguanas, large lizards that appear in the neighbouring wildlife reserve, which in the sunlight appear coloured like “a heap of precious stones or like a pane cut out of an old church window.” She tells of how she attempted to shoot an iguana with the idea of making something pretty out of its skin, only for its colours to fade as it dies and turn “grey and dull like a lump of concrete.” For your own sakes, she warns us, never shoot an iguana, or indeed attempt to take anything of beauty away from the foreign place it belongs to- for fear that it might lose its value in death.
There is very little of her personal life and relationships made explicit in the book. In everything, she remains the Baroness, and maintains a certain distance from private matters. Her husband, whom she moved to the farm with from Denmark and subsequently was divorced from, is not mentioned once. Among the people who make regular appearances are various members of the African tribe, such as the old Kikuyu chief or her cookboy, Kamante, all portrayed with humour and dignity. On the other hand, there are her European friends and visitors to the farm. The most notable of these is Denys Finch-Hatton, an Englishman making a living organising safari hunts and who was presumably –although she makes no mention of it – her lover. She describes him as a person who “lived much by the ear” and in the evenings he would return to the farm and listen to the stories of the farm and the ones she made up while he was away. You can picture them passing many a warm African night with stories, and it is not a stretch to imagine that they were the same tales Blixen later published after she lost the farm and left Africa for good.
Karen Blixen was, for a poet and a well-bred Danish baroness, remarkably fearless. She thought equally little of shouldering by herself the responsibility for a coffee plantation – and the native people dependent on it – as she did of going out to shoot lions threatening her cattle. You could say Out of Africa captures ways of living that no longer exists in the world, like the fierce rites of the Masai warriors or the roaming of aristocratic Englishmen citing poetry and hunting for ivory. The book also celebrates Blixen’s love for the country and its people, and ultimately the art of telling a story well. We cannot know all the facts of the story, or how much of it actually happened; but the story is so beautiful that I no longer care to know.
From the chapter Wings, in which Blixen and Denys Finch-Hatton have just shot two lions:
“Africa, in a second, grew endlessly big, and Denys and I, standing upon it, infinitely small. Outside our torchlight there was nothing but darkness, in the darkness in two directions there were lions, and from the sky rain. But when the deep roar died out, there was no movement anywhere, and the lion lay still, his head turned away on to his side, as in a gesture of disgust. There were two big dead animals in the coffee field, and the silence of night all around. “