Thursday, March 24, 2011

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

Rating: 3 & ½ Stars

I’ve always found it interesting to read colonial experiences of Europeans, and have wondered whether they can legitimately be categorized under the literature of the nation in question. In Isak Dinesen’s case, the doubt resolves itself. Out of Africa is very much about the land and the people, albeit as seen by an outsider. Dinesen’s writes with the eye of a painter, and the voice of a poet. The book is a hymn to the allure of Africa. She seems to have the awareness of living on borrowed beauty; in the paradoxical situation of one who may have come to conquer, but stays to be captivated.

Isak Dinesen was one of the pen names adopted by Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke (1885-1962). Born into an aristocratic family in Denmark, the young Dinesen received her education in art in Copenhagen, Paris, and Rome. Having married her second cousin, she moved with him to Africa in 1914 to start and manage a coffee plantation in Kenya. The marriage ended in divorce in 1925, but the Baron left Dinesen a couple of things to remember him by – the coffee farm in the Ngong Hills that she managed to keep going till 1931, and the dreaded syphilis that stayed with her for the rest of her life. This book is a memoir of the years between 1914 and 1931. There is very little mention of her personal woes. Rather, it is a collection of slightly dreamy reminiscences of her life in Kenya.

The author comes across as a woman who was both courageous and cultured, and a gracious, hospitable hostess who threw her home open to her friends, most but not all of them, fellow colonials. While recounting the management of the farm, she speaks in no particular chronological order of the animals, people and events that she encountered. She is a clear-eyed observer of characters and customs, but there is in her writing the ambivalence that is probably innate to the colonialist. On the one hand, she is deeply appreciative of everything around her, and ironically refers to the “prejudiced civilized person”. This is however, in marked contrast to the undercurrent of condescension that pervades the book.

Inadvertently or not, she lays bare the ugliness of colonialism, and the willful and malicious harm inflicted by the European race on the people and wildlife of Africa. Her descriptions of big game hunting and the clinical, cold assessment of Africans often seem lacking in human empathy. This in understandable because to those who ventured to ‘shoulder the white man’s burden’, the land and the inhabitants of Africa and Asia were resources to be exploited, and lesser races to be subjugated. Only under such a delusion could colonization be perpetuated. 

Still, we cannot be over-critical of Africa’s past, especially when there’s enough to regret in its present. In the final analysis, colonial literature is itself the best testament to the times to which it bore witness.

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