Dinesen’s Africa

Out of Africa

By Isak Dinesen

Published 1938

Read Oct 2017

The “about the author” information provided in the Vintage International edition I read gave me useful but not excess information:  “Isak Dinesen is the pseudonym of Karen Blixen, born in Denmark in 1885.  After her marriage in 1914 to Baron Bror Blixen, she and her husband lived in British East Africa, where they owned a coffee plantation.  She was divorced from her husband in 1921 but continued to manage the plantation for another ten years, until the collapse of the coffee market forced her to sell the property and return to Denmark in 1931.  There she began to write in English under the nom de plume Isak Dinesen.”  I will refer to the author by the name she chose as author of this book.

The information was useful because it gave me a sense of how long Dinesen had been in Africa.  Most importantly, however, it told me that the language in Out of Africa is Dinesen’s and not a translator’s.   The language is marvelous.   That she used all her senses in living her life in Africa is clear on the second page of this book:  “The chief feature of the landscape, and of your life it, was the air. …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.”

The book is not an autobiography.  Instead, Dinesen tells us about her experience in Africa while she tried to succeed in the coffee growing business, which was difficult.  She tells us early on that the land was a little too high for coffee.  “But a coffee-plantation is a thing that gets hold of you and does not let you go, and there is always something to do on it:  you are generally just a little behind with your work.”

The opening chapter draws you into her experience quickly—her descriptions of the landscape, the sounds, the animals, coffee-growing, and the people.  Some aspects of her descriptions and comments on the Natives are somewhat surprising to us in 2018 but they reflect views of a European come to farm coffee in East Africa in 1914 as various European countries were continuing their conquest of Africa.  Her comments do, however, point out that the Natives were not homogenous but that her farm employed or interacted with persons from several tribes/communities with different cultures including customs, beliefs, approaches to economics, and more.  She claims, and we believe her claim, that she had genuine affection for them and it’s clear they respect and appreciate her.

Absent a viewing of the 1985 movie by the same name (which is more of a biography of Karen Blixen during her time in Africa), one would not know much about Dinesen’s relationship with Denys Finch-Hatton.  The first chapter she devotes to him is titled “Wings” as much of the chapter is about the flying they would do together in his small aircraft and the view of Africa from the sky.  The second chapter about Denys regards his death, funeral, and burial on her property and is part of the section called “Farewell to the Farm”.

The section “Farewell to the Farm” is some 60 pages and it has no parallel about her arrival to the farm.  She spends some effort relaying the various tasks associated with selling off the furniture and belongings, the house and land, separating from the people who lived and worked on the farm, and especially her efforts to resettle “the squatters” to new land elsewhere in East Africa so that they could remain together.  She provides much detail about her last days there and especially the day she left.  Clearly leaving Africa was extremely painful for her and she describes very well the sensation one has when one is making an end to a part of their life which must end but whose end is not fully chosen.  And then she is Out of Africa.

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