Shadow and character: Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

out of africaOut of Africa, Isak Dinesen (autobiography)

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the North, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the day-time you felt that you had got high up, near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.

The whole story is in that first sentence. (I got this idea from someone else – probably Judith Thurman’s wonderful biography, Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller.) The elegiac mode is set up with Dinesen’s use of the past tense, which tells us that she lost her farm; the rest of the paragraph shows how much that farm meant simply by describing the geography and climate. The description is reminiscent of the story of Icarus, who also got high up and near the sun, and had a very long fall (when the wax on his wings melted). Later in the first chapter Dinesen says how she felt in Kenya: Here you are, where you should be. But she adds that the farm was a little too high for growing coffee, their main crop.

Her failure to keep the farm was due to drought, locusts, and falling coffee prices – acts of god. She presents her story as tragedy, herself as a tragic heroine whose flaw is not lack of courage, but may be lack of common sense, or business sense, or a sense of proportion. Like Icarus, she wants what she wants — a heroic life — despite the cost. (She also loves a man who is as impossible to keep as her African farm.) At one point near the end of the book she asks herself what business she had, to set her heart on Africa. She feels she cannot live without the people, the landscape, her whole way of life there, but when coffee prices fall she is forced out, back down from the high places, to lowland Denmark. Dinesen’s sense of personal loss powers her memory of a heroic Africa, that she saw as ‘lost’ to encroaching colonialism.


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