Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A Missing Piece


I'm a big fan of Karen Blixen's memoirs of Africa, and particularly the movie starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. It takes quite a bit to make colonialism attractive, and the British were terribly good at it, a skill that's reflected in Blixen's work.

When I read from that era I try and put aside my judgments in order to understand the confidence with which the British and others approached their takeover of "primitive" corners of the world, Kenya among them. Otherwise the paternalism is quite appalling--even though some colonialists nevertheless seemed inclined to appreciate the rich native cultures and ecological wonders they were destroying in the name of civilization.

Having read Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass, I sometimes wondered how the details of the movie came to be. There's something coolly intellectual about Blixen's style; I always suspected she held something back, hinting at her love rather than displaying it fully.

The movie, on the other hand, is gauzy with nostalgic affection for Kenya, its people, and the life of work, safari, and society found there. I suppose part of the difference can be attributed to the movie version's focus on the love story between Streep and Redford's characters--definitely a source of happiness, at least for a while--and how that feeling of heartfelt affection can overwhelm setbacks and trying circumstances.

Now, having also read The Flame Trees of Thika, I feel I've found the missing piece. I would love to know if the screenwriter also read this book before taking on the script, or if the director, cinematographer, and others involved in its making were familiar with it. It brings the era to life.

Huxley's perspective is that of a child, with a child's acceptance of unusual events, abiding curiosity, lack of prejudice, and dislike of adult-imposed limitations. Her attitude informs the stories from this book and brings the characters to life. Her charm, humor, insight, and outright affection give this book a golden glow, and the adult sensibilities she brings to this memoir in writing it years later give her childhood self a pleasant "wise beyond her years" dimension that I found very enjoyable.

Fortunately, Huxley wrote other books, and I look forward to reading them someday.

Excerpt:

Nervously, I touched the leopard; the flesh was warm, it seemed impossible that anything so splendid, so magnificently made, and so instinct with life should be lying there drained and empty. I fingered one of its great pads, large as a plate, rough as sandstone, and yet springy and yielding, and ran a hand down the great sweep of its flank, built for speed like the flank of a race-horse; I could feel hard sinews under a silk-soft skin and sense perfection of design, not a single wasted molecule of tissue, nothing in excess, nothing lacking, nothing ugly or misshapen, the whole thing molded by its purpose into a miraculous yellow engine of speed, ferocity, and skill. Why did it have to be dead and useless, the agents of putrefaction at work already in its clotting blood? I knew the answer satisfied my elders--it had failed to respect their property, their goats and calves and dogs, but it was a beast so much finer than the miserable goats it preyed upon . . . that for a moment, as I touched the leopard, that answer seemed ridiculous; rather one would have offered goats as tributes to a creature so imperial.

Note: I read this book for the 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge and used it for the letter K (Kenya) in the Where are You Reading? Challenge, and it's also my first candle-book for the Birth Year Reading Challenge! Yay, me.  

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