Isak Dinesen amongst graves.

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One of the books that I took off the shelf this month was Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, what looks to be a first edition that my grandfather received through the Book-of-the-Month club soon after it was published in 1938. I have read parts of this book many times over the years, but never the whole thing. It is one of those works that is compelling in many ways, though it “lacks narrative interest,” i.e., it is not a page-turner.

It was sitting on my desk and one day I opened it in the middle and enjoyed, as always, the voice of the writer through her vivid stories. I transcribed one for my edification, and I trust yours.

THE IGUANA

In the Reserve I have sometimes come upon the Iguana, the big lizards, as they were sunning themselves upon a flat stone in a river-bed. They are not pretty in shape, but nothing can be imagined more beautiful that their colouring. They shine like a heap of precious stones or like a pane cut out of an old church window. When, as you approach, they swish away, there is a flash of azure, green and purple over the stones, the colour seems to be standing behind them in the air, like a comet’s luminous tail.

Once I shot an Iguana. I thought that I should be able to make some pretty things from his skin. A strange thing happened then, that I have never afterwards forgotten. As I went up to him, where he was lying dead upon his stone, and actually while I was walking the few steps, he faded and grew pale, all the colour died out of him as in one long sigh, and by the time that I touched him he was grey and dull like a lump of concrete. It was the live impetuous blood pulsating within the animal, which had radiated out all that glow and splendour. Now that the flame was put out, and the soul had flown, the Iguana was as dead as a sandbag.

Often since I have, in some sort, shot an Iguana, and I have remembered the one of the Reserve. Up at Meru I saw a young Native girl with a bracelet on, a leather strap two inches wide, and embroidered all over with very small turquoise-coloured beads which varied a little in colour and played in green, light blue, and ultramarine. It was an extraordinarily live thing; it seemed to draw breath on her arm, so that I wanted it for myself, and made Farah buy it from her. No sooner had it come upon my own arm than it gave up the ghost. It was nothing now, a small, cheap, purchased article of finery. It had been the play of colours, the duet between the turquoise and the “nègre”, — that quick, sweet, brownish black, like peat and black pottery, of the Native’s skin, — that had created the life of the bracelet.

In the Zoological Museum of Pietermaritzburg, I have seen, in a stuffed deep-water fish in a showcase, the same combination of colouring, which there had survived death; it made me wonder what life can well be like, on the bottom of the sea, to send up something so live and airy. I stood in Meru and looked at my pale hand and the dead bracelet, it was as if an injustice had been done to a noble thing, as if truth had been suppressed. So sad did it seem that I remembered the saying of the hero in a book that I had read as a child: “I have conquered them all, but I am standing amongst graves.”

— Isak Dinesen in Out of Africa

10 thoughts on “Isak Dinesen amongst graves.

  1. I just love ‘Out of Africa’, and your edition is lovely. Those stories all seem to me to have some kernel of truth embedded inside the words, like a fable. Perhaps it is because Isak Dinesen is such a superb short story writer that this is not a ‘page turner’ but a string of jewel-like fables to be savoured and considered..

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  2. I admit to loving the movie (with Meryl Streep) more enthusiastically than the book. In either case, I’ve always been drawn in by her opening line, “I had a farm in Africa.” Thank you for sharing the excerpt you found stirring.

    Have you ever read/seen another treasure by the same author, Babette’s Feast? Both my husband and I have watched this award winning film on several occasions. The meandering story unfolds in a remote Danish village and one is quickly drawn into the story with its quirky characters.

    Wishing you a beautiful week ahead…
    Brenda

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    1. Brenda, yes, I love “Babette’s Feast” and have seen it at least twice – never read the book, and always forget that it was also one of Dinesen’s stories. Thank you for that reminder. Now I don’t know if I want to see the movie or read that story next! What a problem to have 😉 Which collection is “Babette’s Feast” part of? Oh – I see, it is in Anecdotes.

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  3. It has been years since I read this book, but I do remember liking it, and appreciating Isek Dinesen’s writing style. I might have to revisit reading it again, along with Babette’s Feast.

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