Saturday, January 25, 2014

i dreamed of africa - review

I suppose in some circles, I Dreamed of Africa is a modern classic. Perhaps that's simply because a (truly terrible) movie was inspired by the book in 2000. I had forgotten about the movie when I received the book at my book club's Christmas gift exchange, and was just excited to read an autobiography of a woman who, like me, dreamed of living in Africa and, unlike me, made that dream come true. In fact, when I started reading the book I was so excited about it that I wrote a preview, something I've never done before. 

I enjoyed the book enough to pass it on today, but it was not without issues. The writer, Kuki Gallmann, grew up in Italy dreaming of Africa, and eventually moved to Kenya with her young son and second husband. Things happen (it would be hard to mention any plot points without spoiling the story, though Gallmann is really the queen of the spoilers in the story) and she continually dusts herself off, take a philosophical stance, and moves forward. I read autobiographies with a touch of disbelief at the best of times, but Gallmann's memories of her own response to unspeakable loss are really tough to take. Her children are perfect; her husband is perfect; her friends are perfect; her lovers are perfect; she is perfect. It's all a bit ... tiresome. 

Gallmann is a fine, poetic writer for whom English is clearly a second language. It's not that her English is flawed - the impression is more that it's a little too studied. Like her attempts at philosophy and her characters, the language tries too hard. While she has a mastery of image, those images lose their impact in their studiousness. It's like watching someone play a piano with technical precision but no passion. 

Associate link to order this book on Amazon

My biggest issue, as I suspected it might be going in, was the author's seeming unawareness of the impact of Europeans on the health, happiness, ecology and quality of life of Africans. Yes, there is a complex and violent history between the many peoples of Africa. Yes, colonization brought progress (though I struggle to put aside my questions about how much of a benefit that is). Yes, even Gallmann herself eventually became a major player in the conservation of the flora and fauna of the area around her considerable ranch. But she seems to be completely devoid of any self-awareness - the story takes place largely in the 1980's, and yet if I Dreamed of Africa was all you had to go on, you might be lead to believe that Europeans were still in charge in Kenya although it had been an independent republic for 20 years.

While Gallmann is frequently on her remote ranch with little other adult company, the adults who surround her are clearly no more friends than the animals on the farm. In fact, they are less intimately related to than the dogs. In one late scene Gallmann and her young daughter are honoured by the warriors of a nearby Pokot clan. On noticing that she and her daughter are the only women present, Gallmann surmises, "Our European origin, my status as guardian of this land, gave us, I supposed, the status of men." I could write a thesis on everything that is galling in that statement.

You might be wondering at this point if I actually enjoyed this book. I did. Although it was emotionally flat and culturally awkward, my long love of Africa and my fascination in particular with Kenya kept me reading. I also freely acknowledge that Kuki Gallmann and her daughter have done incredible things for Kenya. She transformed her 100,000 acre ranch into a nature conservancy that also supports regional peace, the sharing of ethnobotany knowledge, and archeological research. If I could go to Kenya and work for the foundation and conservancy, it would be amazing. But that doesn't diminish the issues in the reading.

I liked the book. I just wish I could have liked it more - to have felt the story, to have learned something new, to have been somehow invested in the outcome. 

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