Saturday, 26 November 2011

Review: 'Out Of Africa' by Isak Dinesen

'I had a farm in Africa...' It's a very famous opening line, and most people of a certain age will undoubtedly have seen the film and will therefore mentally hear it in Meryl Streep's distinctive accent. This is a little piece of history, like looking at the past through the wrong end of the telescope. Everything is clear and precise, but very far away, and as a way of life, it has gone for ever.

This is not a biography, more of an episodic type of memoir. The author tells us nothing of her formative years, or of her post-Africa life. It is as if she simply came alive when she first moved to her farm, and after she left it, she ceased to exist. It is clear that she had a deep affinity with Africa, its people and wildlife, and in particular with her own little patch of land, so perhaps she felt that the rest of her life spent elsewhere was not important to her.

What she chooses to tell the reader is very selective. There was at one time a husband, but whether he actually owned the farm or it was in her name is not clear. He is mentioned in passing two or three times, and was clearly not a significant part of her life. Instead, she talks a great deal about the Natives (capitalised) who worked on the farm, the Masai on their reservation nearby, her Somali servant, the Indian businessmen in Nairobi and the lions and other animals out on the plains. These were her interests, the things which absorbed her time and energy, together with her coffee plantation (never very successful and eventually sold, reluctantly, when its losses became unsustainable).

She seems to have treated her servants and farm workers very benevolently, setting up a school for the children, treating injuries and illnesses herself, although in a fairly haphazard fashion, or carting more serious cases off to hospital, and supervising (and adjudicating) their disputes. She was regarded by them as a combination of a local chieftain and the representative of law and order, almost like a demi-god, so they turned to her in any difficulty, seemingly confident of her ability to resolve all their problems. She regularly took the role of judge, applying a mixture of European and native rules to achieve an outcome which satisfied all sensibilities.

Nevertheless, she had an instinctive acceptance of white superiority, and a very pragmatic understanding of her workers as an economic resource. It was worth some effort to keep them well and contented, but there was no grief over a death or missing individual, or at least no more grief than when the hyenas got into the oxen shed. She observed them with the fascinated and curious eye of the naturalist, regarding them in exactly the same light as the wild beasts that roamed the plains - magnificent in their own way, but not her equals. She turned to her white friends for comfort or conversation or friendship.

The later chapters become even more episodic, being no more that a few paragraphs here and there - musings on wildlife, or an anecdote about someone she knew, sometimes second or third hand. These are not uninteresting, but so disjointed that any depth developed by the earlier chapters is lost. They emphasize, too, the impersonal nature of the whole book, for there is virtually nothing illuminating the author herself as a character. Right to the end, she remains shadowy.

The ending is rather a sad one, as she is forced by economic circumstances to sell the farm (it is bought by a builder for housing since it is conveniently close to the expanding city of Nairobi), and return to Europe. She finds the idea so intolerable that she effectively ignores it, even while her furniture is being sold around her. Eventually she finds herself surrounded by nothing but a few empty packing cases, but still she clings on. And then, passively, because the tickets have been booked, she allows herself to be sent back to Europe, leaving her chosen home behind. And so the book ends. The reader is left, rather sadly, to wonder how she got on and whether she ever got over a grief that was almost too deep for expression.Three stars.

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