Out of Africa by Karen Blixen

February 14, 2018
By smitten PLATINUM, Beijing, Other
smitten PLATINUM, Beijing, Other
20 articles 0 photos 1 comment

Danish author Karen Blixen’s 1937 memoir Out of Africa casts a personal and poetic light on African colonial life in the final decades of the British Empire. In this loosely constructed recollection of past events, Blixen describes her seventeen years’ worth of acquaintances and trials running a coffee plantation at the foot of the Ngong Hills in Kenya (at the time referred to as British East Africa). She depicts a vivid picture of African life intruded upon by Western imperialism, whereby tourist trails have been launched and extinct ways of life are constantly revisited.

Historically, the British Empire’s expansion in previously unexplored regions around the world were of great controversy. For the colonists, they were serving Western civilization justice by spreading their language, culture, religion, social systems, and much more to people they considered inferior to themselves. Meanwhile, the previously peaceful lives of colonized people were being rudely interrupted (or, for lack of more accurate terms, perpetually destroyed). Europeans deemed Kenya a “pre-historic Utopia”; it was, in truth, a nurturing land teeming with resources awaiting their exploitation. This context in which Blixen begins a new life in Africa is important, as it is a fact to constantly return to while analyzing the relationships she formed with its people.

Blixen’s coffee plantation hired nearby Kikuyu tribes-people as servants of various specialties, while “squatters” provided labor in exchange for wages and peaceful coexistence. She also makes a point to differentiate between inherently distinct African cultures such as the Kikuyu and the Maasai, showing how informed and understanding she is. However, there are multiple uses of abrasive language when describing locals, to which I initially reacted with loud accusations of racism (excuse myself). I was intent on proving just how racist Blixen was, so I made a small mark on the page whenever proof occurred. I then noticed a clear cluster of them in the first half, while the second half bearing contained any. Knowing that she started her memoir while living in Kenya and finally finished after returning to her family’s estate in Europe, I suspect that a removal from Africa made its people seem more dear and equal to her than before. Upon rational reflection, however, I came to the reasonable conclusion that as this was written a century ago, there is no meaning in holding it up against standards of my day. (How strangely monotonous would literature be if everything were written with the same set of values and social norms in mind!)

Language-wise, Blixen’s style is beautifully lyrical and resembles the poetic setting she describes. She relies heavily on figurative language, which I’m usually unimpressed by (most of what I read comes across as sappy and utterly irrelevant to the main idea); but in this case, the illustration of Africa, a continent with such presence and mystique, demands a hoard of similes just like Blixen floods her paragraphs with. As she nears the end, her tone takes on an additional hue of melancholy that only losing close acquaintances can produce. It is also in these moments of loss that she does most of her meaningful reflections. Finally, a frequent appearance of rhetorical questions was, to my surprise, not annoying at all. It must be that Africa is just so mesmerizing in Blixen’s words.

Blixen’s personal life is sparsely mentioned throughout the memoir, supposedly because she intended for the book to be solely about her relationship with Africa and its people. But while reading, I was constantly nagged by a curiosity as to her marital status and other mundane affairs. Later on, I learned that her marriage with her second cousin, the Swedish Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke, failed about a decade into her life in Kenya, after which she alone managed the coffee plantation with assistance from local servants. It seems to me that another reason she didn’t mention her marriage was embarrassment due to infidelity on her husband’s side. All in all, this decision was wise as it preserved a serene and pure sense in the book.

While she devotes all of her words to painting a brightly colored image of Africa and spares close to none for in-depth introspection, her personal character is tangible nonetheless. She comes off as a thoughtful, caring, and reasonable baroness who both represents Westerners of her time but also betrays their fundamental beliefs on every level imaginable. As previously mentioned, Blixen’s occasional use of inconsiderate language offers a glimpse of how Europeans viewed Africans; I wouldn’t consider her mindset to epitomize that of Europeans since it’s very likely that she was more open-minded and up to standard with modern-day political correctness. On this note, one trait of hers that truly stands out is her nonconformity to social norms of her day. From the most essential decision of moving away from her family’s estate in order to live in a whole other continent, to being fiercely competent and self-assertive, Blixen’s charisma seeps through the pages. Her unconventional lifestyle and approach to words, to people, to the land, all resonate with me deep within.

Regardless of claims that she exploited the Kikuyu people on her plantation, her genuine passion and love for Kenya undoubtedly overpower these flaws. The whole memoir’s tone and style serve to underscore her spiritual connection with Africa, which she rekindles in the closing chapter Farewell:

“When we got into the cars again and went off, he started to run after the cars as fast as he could, as is whirled on in the dust by the wind, for he was so small—like the final little spark from my fire.”

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