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Culture

ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Le regard lucide de Karen Blixen sur l’Afrique

by Marianne Lioust

Karen Blixen’s Cogent View of Africa

Translated Monday 12 March 2007, by Anna Carella

LES LETTRES FRANÇAISES

Africa
by Karen Blixen. Quarto-Gallimard, 1,030 pages. 25 euros.
Under this title, the Quarto collection is publishing a volume which brings together all Karen Blixen’s texts concerning Africa.

The newly translated “Out of Africa” is a pleasure to reread. It is accompanied by a poem which conveys the bewitchment of raw African nature, the author’s first written work inspired by the Dark Continent. Also included in the collection: the letters which she sent to her family during her seventeen-year African sojourn (1914-1931); letters addressed to two friends who remained in Kenya, written after Blixen’s return to Denmark; speeches made over the radio or at conferences, assembled under the title “Shadows on the Grass”; and finally, two texts reflecting on Europe’s presence in Africa, including some letters from native Kenyans to their former mistress.

The works may seem a bit disparate, yet the volume offers an undeniable unity of place and tone. Each text contains elements that help define the personality of the author; in addition, the texts offer an early 20th century account of the colonial situation in British East Africa. The reader will be as pleased with the literary aspects of the works as with the historical.

Upon rereading “Out of Africa,” one is struck by Ms Blixen’s restraint. Nowadays, much ‘autofiction’ is a forum for personal expression; yet she successfully evokes her experiences, her reflections, and her feelings without making herself the focus of the text. For Ms Blixen, Africa is not a terribly interesting subject matter; however, she provides the authentic, sensitive, and personal voice that makes Africa interesting. She only writes in the first person in order to bring her stories to life, inserting herself into narratives from time to time. When she wants to express her disapproval of the attitude of the majority of English colonists, she does not express her opinion openly; instead, she disguises it as that of her friends.

However, “Out of Africa” is extremely autobiographical, which is clear after reading her letters: a number of anecdotes in “Out of Africa” are equally to be found in her correspondence, with hardly a divergence (for example, the bottle of beer offered to the Swede during the escape to Tanganyika, which in “Out of Africa” becomes a bottle of aged Bordeaux wine—amusing insofar as it confirms Ms Blixen’s reputation as a snob).

One ends up almost preferring the more spontaneous letters which evoke her day-to-day African life. She has the good grace never to dwell on hardships, and she seizes every opportunity to recount the joys of contemplating nature and of her relationship with the natives. As close and trustful as her relations with her mother and her brother may be (her principal correspondents), she never allows herself to appear as anything but a free and responsible woman, assuming the fate that she chose for herself.

The last texts are generally the development of previous reflections or the retelling of anecdotes.

One minor criticism of this excellent edition of Quarto: why give a short summary before each letter from the natives? The letters are perfectly comprehensible for the average reader.

But this is trivial. The edition is generally neat; the choice of the texts, judicious. This comforting vision of Africa, ahead of its time, allows for the discovery of a good writer and a person of moral and intellectual quality.

Marianne Lioust


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