Read the World: Out of Africa

Karen Blixen’s 1937 memoir on building a life in Kenya – penned following her unhappy return to Denmark

It’s one of those lines that every traveller knows: ‘I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.’ They are the first words of Out of Africa, a gorgeously old-fashioned and out-dated memoir by a Danish woman expat living in British East Africa almost a century ago, in the days when European aristocrats owned coffee plantations in what’s now Kenya. Part legacy snapshot of colonial Africa, but mostly a lyrical meditation on the landscapes and people who touched her heart, it’s a favourite of dusty backpackers with a literary mind and a romantic soul. These days, no-one ever seems to mention that the gentlewoman who lived in the smart colonial villa just outside Nairobi battled syphilis and died of anorexia. All this would spoil Blixen’s myth created by Sydney Pollack’s loose 1985 adaptation of the book in which Meryl Streep plays Blixen opposite Robert Redford’s Denys Finch Hatton.

While some readers will find Blixen’s Out of Africa unstructured and inconsequential, others will be enthralled by her writing from memory as she disentangles how the Rich White Lady can co-exist with the Poor Black Men that work on her farm. It’s often said that Blixen represents everything that’s bad about colonialism, and yet as we get to know her, we also come to see that she recognises enough in different tribal cultures to realise that while she ‘should never quite know or understand them, they knew me through and through’.

She’s less interesting on the Europeans that come to visit, although her frank admiration for Finch Hatton – who she never quite admits she’s having an affair with – has the charm and dash that Hollywood could later exploit without exaggeration. Her favourite is Old Knudsen, a down-and-out fisherman from her homeland, who takes up residence and dies on the farm. Edward, Prince of Wales puts in an appearance, but her husband Baron von Blixen-Finecke – author of African Hunter – doesn’t, presumably because his serial adultery brought her so much embarrassment. Her writing becomes warmer when writing about her African employees and acquaintances. In fact, one of the threads that runs through the tapestry is her continual observation of the contrast between African and European culture.

Out of Africa is a guilty pleasure, partly because if written today such colonial reflections would never get published, but mostly because it’s simply a great traveller’s read.

Nick Smith is UK Bureau Chief of the Explorers Journal, the magazine of the Explorers Club in New York. Formerly editor of Geographical, the magazine of the Royal Geographical Society, he is also a contributing editor on Black + White Photography and Outdoor Photography magazines.

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