Book Review : Putting Pictures With Word-Pictures


Isak Dinesen’s Africa by Isak Dinesen and Contributors (Sierra Club: $35, Illustrated)

Dinesen never allowed her celebrated memoir, “Out of Africa,” to be illustrated with photographs, believing her verbal impressions conveyed so intense and personal a vision that pictures could only dilute the impact of her words. Whether this sensitive and elegant Sierra Club production would convince her that photography could be more than “a mechanical receiver” of images must remain a moot question, though the publishers have gone to extraordinary lengths to create a book enlarging the effect of Dinesen’s work without competing with her language.

Literal illustration would have been impossible in any case, because “Out of Africa” was published in 1937, recounting a sojourn beginning in 1913. African customs once prevalent have been abandoned and the ensuing years have radically altered much of Dinesen’s landscape; changes foreshadowed in her work. Scenes and many rituals are kept alive only in these pages. The Kikuyu no longer “rub themselves all over with a particular kind of pale red chalk . . . in it the young people look fossilized, like statues cut in rock.” The photographs accompanying this block of text shows a group of contemporary Kikuyu modestly draped in red and white sarongs, their lavish ornaments reduced to a few discreet strings of shell beads.


A Different Wilderness

Even the wilderness itself has become unrecognizable; buffalo, rhinoceros and eland have long since left the Ngong hills encircling the drab modern buildings of Nairobi. “During my last years in Africa,” Dinesen wrote, “many young Nairobi shop-people ran out in the hills on Sundays, on their motor-cycles, and shot at anything they saw, and I believe that the big game will have wandered away from the hills, through the thorn-thickets and the stony ground farther south.” The vanished species illustrate this segment; providing a sense of the countryside as Dinesen saw it but as no contemporary visitor will find it today.

The color photographs have been contributed by various people, among them Peter Beard, who settled in East Africa after reading Dinesen’s book, so influenced by the author that he devoted his life to photographing Africa and writing about the country, his life inextricably bound to Dinesen’s and his career determined by the impact of her words. Some of the most striking pictures were taken during the location filming of the forthcoming movie based upon “Out of Africa.” Though the collaboration among Universal Pictures, the Sierra Club, Dinesen’s biographer Judith Thurman and posthumously, Dinesen herself, is most unusual, the result is a remarkably unified work, the disparate material assembled by editors who shared a clear and special vision.

The actual text is all Dinesen’s, drawn from her “Letters from Africa 1914-1931” as well as from “Shadows on the Grass,” the book that followed “Out of Africa.” The passages selected give a limited but coherent outline of the author’s life on her coffee plantation in the Kenyan Highlands, describing not only physical surroundings but the profound emotional effect produced by the land and the people upon a young and impressionable European woman.

Risks and Rewards

The risks and rewards of coffee farming are marvelously re-created: “When the plantation flowered in the beginning of the rains, it was a radiant sight, like a cloud of chalk, in the mist and drizzling rain. . . . Sometimes the coffee would be . . . ready to take out of the dryer in the middle of the night. That was a picturesque moment, with many hurricane lamps in the huge dark room of the factory, that was hung everywhere with cobwebs and coffee husks, and with eager glowing dark faces, in the light of the lamps. . . .”

There are a hundred such “picturesque moments” in this book, forming a particularly seductive introduction to the life and work of an extraordinary writer. Meticulously assembled and presented, “Isak Dinesen’s Africa” is a stunning scrapbook, not a substitute for the original works but a fine companion piece.

As for those original works, the soon-to-be-released film “Out of Africa” will no doubt spark an interest in Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) and several titles by her and about her are now available from the University of Chicago Press: “Daguerreotypes and Other Essays,” translated from Danish by P. M. Mitchell and W. D. Paden ($6.95, paperback); “Carnival: Entertainments and Posthumous Tales” by Isak Dinesen ($9.95, paperback); “Letters From Africa: 1914-1931” by Isak Dinesen, translated by Ann Born ($9.95, paperback); and “Silence Will Speak: A Study of the Life of Denys Finch Hatton and His Relationship With Karen Blixen” by Errol Trzebinski ($8.95, paperback).