Updated on August 5, 2015
25. ‘Out of Africa’ by Karen Blixen
This is the autobiography of Karen Blixen, a Danish woman who owned and ran a coffee farm in Kenya, in the early 1900s. I don’t usually read autobiographies, but Blixen’s story is so unusual, and her writing style so compelling, that I found myself hooked.
Her descriptions of Africa and its people are thoroughly absorbing, and her anecdotes are so beautifully rounded that they read almost as though they have been made up. In fact this is a credit to Blixen’s skill, that she manages to layer her real encounters and experiences with the significance of fiction.
Her attitude towards ‘Natives’, as she calls them, is very much of its era and can sometimes seem shocking. She undoubtedly has a deep connection with the people who live on her land, and she takes an interest in their traditions, but inevitably remains separate from them. She generalises about them, discussing the peculiarities of the Natives and dwelling on the ways in which they are different from her.
She does, at some points, turn the spotlight on herself and her own race. For example, there is a fascinating moment when she discusses the Native aural vs the Western written traditions. I may have disliked the racial generalisation, but her description of ‘white people’ in general certainly applies to me:
“But white people … cannot listen to a recital. If they do not become fidgety and remember things that should be done at once, they fall asleep. The same people will ask you for something to read, and may then sit all through an evening absorbed in any kind of print handed them … They have been accustomed to take in their impressions by the eye.”
The book was not written, at one time, as a single unit. For example, Section 4 is made up of fragments from her diary, unlike the previous longer chapters. I liked this section in particular because it felt like a collection of snatched moments from her real life, as if she had just come in from walking around her farm and taken note of something she had been musing about.
In the end, when Blixen is forced to sell the farm because plagues of locusts and lack of rain have made it unsustainable, I felt genuinely saddened. Her love of the place and the country saturates the entire novel, so that her departure becomes truly wrenching. This book is made powerful by Blixen’s voice and her deep connection to her adopted homeland.
My boyfriend bought me this book for my birthday, because it is a classic that I did not yet have on my shelves. I read it on the trains to and from Cornwall, when I went home to visit my family.
If you enjoyed my review, why not buy the book and let me know what you think?