Monday, April 7, 2008

Books: Out of Africa, by Isak Dinesen

I never read books like this, so don't ask me why I decided to read it; I have no idea. I think I meant to read A Passage to India before/during my trip to that country, didn't get around to it, and thought this would be a similar sort of thing (a crusty colonial tome). When I blithely requested it from, I didn't know that I'd be getting a memoir, not a novel, and that it would be written by a women, not a man. For all the complaining I do about books written by women, this one isn't terribly bad, if a bit dry.

Danish Dinesen (Karen von Blixen-Finecke) lived on a failing coffee plantation in Nairobi in the early 20th century, and describes her time there with a kind of nostalgic, soft-focus detachment. It wouldn't be difficult to construe the book as racist, although for all the "curious ways of the natives"-type talk, Dinesen did clearly respect them more than the average colonialist, even if the Bible came hand-in-hand with more necessary Western items (like medicine).

Perhaps more confusing than her relationships with the Africans (with whom, it must be said, she related in different ways, because of the different tribes' varying lifestyles and attitudes) is her relationship with the country's animals; the most tender, poignant passage in the entire book is a description of the flamingos that an exporter boxes and puts onto a ship for passage to a European zoo, where the confinement breaks their fragile legs. And yet, she constantly goes out to shoot lions at the behest of the natives (who keep livestock), showing no qualms about that kind of violence. I imagine that when lives outside of the sub/urban landscape, PETA becomes less than irrelevant. Nevertheless, reading this today, in New York, I couldn't help but shudder each moment a bullet hit the noble head of a lioness mauling a dead giraffe or padding through the darkness.

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