Tuesday, April 17, 2007

#26 - Out Of Africa

The romantic notions I had regarding this book stem, obviously, from seeing the film, where I assumed Out of Africa would echo the autobiographical elements of Sydney Pollack's adaptation. For years, I'd wander past it on the shelf and think to myself, 'man, I really do need to read that book,' ashamed, that in six years of studying English, with a focus on post-colonial literature, I had never had the courage to actually conquer Isak Dinesen's work. It was quite a shock, then, to discover how different the book actually is from how I built it up in my imagination.

After almost two months of reading it on and off, I've finally finished the real Out of Africa. Sometimes majestic, sometimes upsetting, sometimes painfully dated, and sometimes downright brilliant, the book is described in the 1001 Books as "perhaps the greatest pastoral elegy of modernism." Telling the story of Dinesen's time running a coffee plantation in the Ngong Hills, it's almost anthropological in much of its intent, and the parts of the book that are so distasteful now, racist even, are contained in her attempts to categorize life in Africa. But the parts of the book that soar are when she's exploring her very real connection to the land, to her farm, to her life as she built it around her. For example, when the book captures her very human emotions, it's some of the most wonderful writing; yet when she attempts to "explain" away Africa to her European counterparts, perhaps her imagined audience, it's almost painful to read it's so offensive.

Yet something makes you hang in there, and there are subjects you almost wish that she released herself, and/or her voice, enough to write freely about: her true feelings toward Denys Finch-Hatton; her absolute heartbreak with the failure of the farm; her obvious anger toward her husband (who gave her syphilis, as we all know from the film). All of these aspects of Dinesen's life are explored in passing, as if she could only express herself when truly looking at the landscape, as if the descriptions of Africa and the farm could somehow intuit how she felt on an emotional level about the rest of her life.

There are so many wonderful passages in the book that it would be impossible to list them all here, and as the Denmark entry in my Around the World in 52 Books challenge, I find myself once again confronted with the fact that the author I've chosen has once again transplanted themselves elsewhere to tell the story of an adopted land rather than his/her homeland. Perhaps in the end, it doesn't matter at all where you're from, all that matters is that you find your heart in the place you choose to write about. There's no denying Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) left her heart behind in Africa when she was forced to return to Europe.

My own books I packed up in cases and sat on them, or dined on them. Books in a colony play a different part in your existence from what they do in Europe; there is a whole side of your life which there they are alone take charge of; and on this account, according to their quality, you feel more grateful to them, or more indignant with them, than you will ever do in civilized countries.

...I had consented to give away my possessions one by one, as a kind of ransom for my own life, but by the time that I had nothing left, I myself was the lightest thing of all, for fate to get rid of.

1 comment:

Celeste J. said...

Hey there! I see you are an avid book reader as well. Feel free to check out my blog sometime. I'm trying to read 101 books in 1001 days.

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