I decided to read Out of Africa not because I had seen the film (I still haven’t seen it) and been swayed by this wonderful and tragic love story taking place against the backdrop of amazing landscapes (or so my mother told me when I was complaining about this book), but because of a throwaway remark in Martha Gellhorn’s Travel with Myself and Another: Five Journeys from Hell. Because the book had been turned into a movie that was supposed to be very good I thought it would be a nice read. Well, no, it really wasn’t.
What is this about?
As described on an online-shopping site: From the moment Karen Blixen arrived in Kenya in 1914 to manage a coffee plantation, her heart belonged to Africa. Drawn to the intense colours and ravishing landscapes, Karen Blixen spent her happiest years on the farm and her experiences and friendships with the people around her are vividly recalled in these memoirs. Out of Africa is the story of a remarkable and unconventional woman and of a way of life that has vanished for ever.
As described by yours truly: Karen Blixen owns a coffee plantation in Kenya. It’s not a very successful plantation, and she will have to sell it by the end of the book. In this book she recalls events from the life on the farm, such as a shooting incident involving local people, visits by a local king, safaris, people she knew and her departure from Africa.
Why should you read the book?
Actually, I think you shouldn’t. I’m not saying I disliked it as much as Anna Karenina because at least Blixen is not unpleasant, but boy it’s boring.
The main drawback of the book, in my opinion, is that it is completely disjointed. There’s no linear narrative. You could have made 5 short stories out of each part. Or a better writer could have made something like Joyce’s Dubliners out of it, a series of stories whose only link is the place where they are set. But instead you get one fairly big book, with no passion, no sense of direction.
I did enjoy the story of the shooting incident for what it can tell of the Kikuyu people’s legal system (once you set aside the patronising tone, to be expected of a European woman of the time), but otherwise I found the book hard to read and couldn’t wait for her to sell her farm and go back to Europe.
As for the love story of the movie, well it’s not there. The character played by R Redford is there, but while Blixen’s love and admiration for him is obvious in the book (only in the latter parts, you have to go through the first 3 parts before you realise he was important in her life), it is not obvious that they are lovers, even though they apparently were (according to her biography on Wikipedia at least).
In a nutshell, a good writer might have made something of the material. I don’t think Blixen was a good writer, so for me all these stories were wasted on this book.