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Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Book Review: Out of Africa (1934) by Isak Dinesen

Meryl Streep in Out of Africa, the 1985 film version of the 1934 book by Isak Dinesen.  A major difference between the film and movie is the strong love story in the film between Streep and Redford's character- which is absent from the book.

Book Review:
Out of Africa (1934)
by Isak Dinesen(Karen Blixen)

  I'm sure that 99/100 Americans think of the 1985 Robert Redford/Meryl Streep starring film when they hear the title of Out of Africa.  The central plot of the film: A passionate love affair between Redford's Denys, a big game hunter, and Streep's Karen is nowhere in the book, which isn't so much a novel as a memoir- an interesting memoir- of a woman who ran a coffee plantation in the Kenyan uplands prior to and after World War I.
Robert Redford played the love interest in the 1985 movie version of Out of Africa.

 The enduring popularity of this book is likely due to the great sensitivity and perception (and respect) that Dinesen/Blixen shows towards the landscape and people of Africa, even as she engaged in a prototypically imperialist endeavor. The world of Out of Africa is a gentle place, with none of the seething hatred and sprang up prior to and after independence.  True, Blixen is hardly looking for trouble- quite the opposite.  Her privileged status as a wealthy white woman, not a British subject (Blixen was Danish) meant that she had a sensitivity to injustice but didn't have to confront it on a daily basis.

  Those looking for a better understanding of modern day Kenya could do worse than starting here. While it would be unfair to call Kenya an unhistorical place, the coming of Europeans to the area was barely preceded by the entrance of Arab slave traders.  Blixen lives among a mix of Kikuyu's- the largest single ethnic group in Kenya, Somalis, who occupy a kind of "house servant" role within colonial Kenya, and the Masai, who live apart but nearby, since her coffee plantation is on the edge of their reserve.

 Dinesen/Blixen has much to say about the people, particularly her native servants.  Much of Out of Africa is split between the natives and her depiction of the land itself, with various European characters popping in and out.  Thought Blixen emigrated to Africa with her husband, they divorced while they were there and Blixen kept the coffee plantation.  Blixen downplays the uniqueness of her role as a single white female plantation owner in the middle of Africa in the early 20th century, but it's easy to read Out of the Africa as a kind of white-girl fantasy of mastery.

 But Out of Africa isn't fictional- and it doesn't even have the structure of a Novel, merely a series of vaguely linked anecdotes from her life in Africa.   So while the book is a romantic tale, it's not a romance, and there is no sex, so if you are looking for that based on the content of the film version, don't bother because it ain't there.

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