First published in 1934, this autobiographical book is Danish author Karen Blixen’s most popular work. It broadly relates to the period between 1913-1930, when Karen ran a 6000 acre coffee plantation in colonial Kenya and is a story of life on the farm and the farm’s eventual failure.
The farm located at the edge of the game reserve is populated by the Masai as well as the Kikuyu tribe, along with lions, giraffes and deer of all varieties. The interaction between the ‘natives’, the whites and the Indian traders in colonial Kenya gives a fascinating glimpse of attitudes, beliefs and life in general from a bygone era. The complete disdain with which lions and other game are shot throughout the book jarred with my post-modern sensibilities but was probably a key attraction and probably a necessity to the European settler of the late 19th and early 20th century. The book also brings out the philosophical differences between the Europeans and the ‘natives’ in areas like justice, gender equality, money and nature. Some of the anecdotes about crime, punishment and compensation following a shooting accident on the farm are hugely revealing of these differences. Throughout the book, descriptions of nature – views, wildlife, mountains, even mist are beautiful pen – pictures; the highlight for me was the description of a locust attack. It brings out the awe-inspiring power of large numbers and sheer helplessness of the African farmer in the face of the relentless attack of the grasshopper.
Apart from Karen herself, the book provides fascinating pen portraits of the European Safari men, Indian traders, Kikuyu cattle grazers, Masai warriors and Somali men & women.
In the end the farm fails and Karen returns to Denmark. But what will probably stay with me is the sheer audacity of the enterprise. Her life on the farm, her friendships, safaris, relationships with the local tribes who are both her employees and friends and portrayals of colonial Kenya are in equal parts romantic and tragic. It reveals the story of ordinary people behind the colonial history of our textbooks.
Karen Blixen was on the Nobel prize shortlist in the year before she died, largely on account of this book. She faced lots of criticism of racism and white supremacy during her life and it is impossible to not notice those elements in the book. But she also comes across as somebody who cared deeply about her people, without ever being able to escape her prejudices.
The book, supplemented by some of Karen Blixen’s other writing has been adopted into a multiple Oscar winning movie starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. I found the movie an entertaining watch albeit a little slow in parts.