Saturday, June 20, 2009

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

As a young adult I read almost everything written by Elisabeth Elliot. In several of her books she highly recommends the writings of Danish author, Isak Dinesen. Recently I got my hands on Dineson's Out of Africa  and was quickly plunged into life in Kenya in the early decades of the 20th century.

Dinesen and her husband moved to British East Africa in 1914 where they established a coffee plantation. Even after her divorce seven years later, she continued to run the farm. By then Africa had gotten so deep into her blood that she thought she could never leave. The book recounts her struggles, but more than that it describes her deep love for Kenya and its people. When she finally has to leave the continent she writes it was like being in a stupor of unreality: "It was not I who was going away, I did not have it in my power to leave Africa, but it was [as if] the country was slowly and gravely withdrawing from me, like the sea in ebb-tide."

Dinesen's descriptions of animals can take your breath away: In the Reserve I have sometimes come upon the Iguana, the big lizards, as they were sunning themselves upon a flat stone in a river-bed. They are not pretty in shape, but nothing can be imagined more beautiful than their coloring. They shine like a heap of precious stones or like a pane cut out of an old church window. When, as you approach, they swish away, there is a flash of azure, green and purple over the stones, the color seems to be standing behind them in the air, like a comet's luminous tail. Once I shot an iguana. I thought that I should be able to make some pretty things from his skin. A strange thing happened then, that I have never forgotten. As I went up to him, where he was lying upon his stone, and actually while I was walking the few steps, he faded and grew pale, all color died out of him as in one long sigh, and by the time that I touched him he was gray and dull like a lump of concrete. (p.257)

I love beautiful writing and there is no doubt that Dineson is a gifted story-teller. Nevertheless I felt bogged down in the wordy prose at times. Now that I've read the book I'd like to see the 1985 movie again. The love affair with Denys Finch-Hatton was hollywoodized, but it is true that they had an unusual and deep friendship. And I'd like to hear Dineson's lovely words superimposed on scenes of Africa.

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