In the Theater of Isak Dinesen
Out of Africa, Dinesen's second book, is a love story, though not the one portrayed by Streep and Redford in the film. The memoir is about Dinesen's love of East Africa--the cultures, the landscapes, the animals. The feeling that saturates the book is reverence. Dinesen doesn't pretend to be an expert on the country; much of what she encounters puzzles her. But she is respectful of indigenous traditions and protective of the people.
Dinesen's typical strategy in the book is to name something, define the name by a set of associations and then unravel her own definition. One of the best examples of this involves a passage about an antelope named Lulu that was found as a fawn and raised as a household pet. Eventually Lulu did what all wild animals should do and returned to the forest to live. Occasionally she would show up at the house to eat the maize scattered for her--Lulu's appearance is celebrated by Dinesen as "a free union" and "a rare, honourable thing." But mostly the antelope kept out of sight, leaving the author to imagine the animal's experience:
In Africa there is a cuckoo which sings in the middle of the hot days in the midst of the forest, like the sonorous heartbeat of the world, I had never had the luck to see her, neither had anyone that I knew, for nobody could tell me how she looked. But Lulu had perhaps walked on a narrow green deerpath just under the branch on which the cuckoo was sitting.
While the precision of the physical details is evocative, the important word in this passage is "perhaps." It reminds us that the scene of Lulu walking in the forest is the author's creation. Dinesen describes Lulu's world through the proposition of an experience that she will never witness. She doesn't claim to be accurate. Instead, she makes up a story about the antelope, filling in the gaps of her knowledge with imagined possibility. It might seem just a charming passage, without much consequence. But as she turns around the word "perhaps," Dinesen is demonstrating how a vivid version of reality can be created from a mix of description and invention.
Dinesen is a conjurer, and her signature trick as a storyteller is to mask her characters in stereotypes and then set them in motion, giving them opportunities to define themselves as individuals. She both illuminates the features of the stereotype and contrasts categorical notions of identity with idiosyncratic actions. She uses a similar method in Out of Africa and in a short later memoir, Shadows on the Grass. But the experience of reading these nonfiction works is like watching a troupe of masked actors walk out of the theater and down the street. On the stage of one of Dinesen's stories, the masks help us to understand how individuals are defined by, and in some cases cling to, the identities assigned to them by their culture. Off the stage, the characters aren't given the chance to speak for themselves and to determine their relation to the stereotypes. Consequently, the stereotypes may be startling in their bluntness. Or they may seem naïve and even express an insidious racism. The Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o called Out of Africa "one of the most dangerous books ever written about Africa."
"It was not easy to get to know the Natives," Dinesen writes in Out of Africa. She compares the people who live on her farm to wild birds: "Like the spurfowl, the Natives might be mimicking a fear of us because of some other deeper dread." About her young cook Kamante, she says, "Nothing, I thought, could be more mysterious than this natural instinct in a Savage for our culinary art." Dinesen's representation of Kamante is perplexing. But before we throw the whole book away, it's important to follow the evolution of the stereotypes. Careful readers will find that Dinesen often recasts or reverses blunt labels. The description of Kamante is a good example. Having just declared that the culinary ability in "a Savage" can seem mysterious, Dinesen admits that she might be the "Savage" here. Though she doesn't pretend to know what Kamante is thinking, she proposes that he would "look upon the trouble that we give ourselves about our food, as upon a lunacy." If she, a white European aristocrat, has allowed herself to think of her servants as "Savages," then she is responsible for considering their perceptions of her. She ends up proving that the labels borrowed from cultural prejudices reveal more about the perceiver than the perceived.
In her tales, Dinesen trumps stereotypes with depictions of individuality. The broad categories used to define characters become mixed up with the ambiguities of private thought and public performances. In her nonfiction, she doesn't pretend to have access to the unexpressed thoughts of her characters. Instead, she willingly plays the role of the fool. She's right there in her own mask, walking alongside the troupe of actors. And with her example, she shows us that whenever we go out to look at something unfamiliar--an animal, a landscape, a culture--we end up looking back at ourselves.
Shortly after Germany invaded Poland and England and France declared war on the Third Reich, Dinesen was commissioned by an editor of Politiken, a Danish newspaper, to write a series of articles about life in Berlin, Paris and London during wartime. She began with a trip to Berlin, where she was welcomed by the Ministry of Propaganda and supplied with an itinerary. Denmark was a neutral country at that point, and Dinesen felt obliged to respect that neutrality in her account of the Third Reich. But when Hitler personally asked to meet her, she declined, pretending that she'd caught a cold and couldn't go out. Later she admitted, with oddly muted revulsion, that "something in the thought must have been distasteful."
Dinesen went on to write her second collection, Winter's Tales, during the German occupation of Denmark. The stories from this period are among her strongest, full of what the critic Robert Langbaum calls "bottomless wisdom." And among them are her most effective examples of a politically engaged theatricality.
In the story "Sorrow-Acre," a peasant woman named Anne-Marie spends the day from sunup to sundown single-handedly mowing the field of an old lord as penance for her son, who has been accused of setting fire to a barn. The boy is never brought to trial, and his guilt remains no more than a suspicion. But still the old lord demands this sacrifice from the woman, and while she labors beneath the hot sun, he watches from the shade of his pavilion.
The old lord's nephew is witness to this and is appalled. He believes that his uncle has come to isolate himself, "to set himself apart from his surroundings, and to close himself up to all outer life.... Strange fancies might there have run in his mind, so that in the end he had seen himself as the only person really existing, and the world as a poor and vain shadow-play, which had no substance to it." Before the sun has set, the nephew has left his uncle's field. The old man changes into a brocaded suit and sips his wine. The hours pass. And with the neatness of a fable's culmination, the woman finishes mowing the field just before the sun goes down, then crumples into her son's arms and dies.
For the old lord, the woman has put on a good show. It doesn't occur to him that he's a main player in the drama. He has made a sport of murder. And when the show is over, he remains with the peasants who have followed the woman throughout the day. His isolation is so disorienting that he doesn't know whether to keep walking or stand still. He is such a pathetic figure in his lace-trimmed shirt and buckled shoes that his cruelty doesn't deserve to be remembered. The only part of the story that will be remembered, the narrator tells us, is the name the peasants give to the field: "Sorrow-Acre."
While the story "Sorrow-Acre" isn't explicitly about war, it does look closely at a tyrant's skewed power. More directly, it follows the consequences of the old lord's irresponsible performance. Here and throughout Dinesen's work, life is self-consciously performed by the characters, their actions are designed to achieve an effect and the very words they use to describe the truth inevitably have a scripted quality.
As members of the audience, we're at an advantage. We can pay attention to the costumes and masks and gestures borrowed by the characters to produce effects. We can see their mistakes, when their efforts fail to produce intended results. The more extravagant the performance, the more exposed the character becomes. Masks are wonderfully paradoxical in this way: while they may hide the physical reality, they can show us how a person wants to be seen.
The moral thrust of Dinesen's tales leads here, to a representation of life as performance--a necessary fiction. In her pliable and accommodating theater, the truth is found in the design of the stories we tell in order to understand whom we might become. Throughout her career, with both the fiction and nonfiction, Dinesen is urging us to recognize the reality of the artificial. And when we really start searching for the truth in stories, we can find it everywhere, not just in sincere confessions but in the deliberate lies and imagined possibilities, the magic and fantasy and all the other unreal elements that go into the concoction of identity.