BBC Radio 4, 25-29 April 2011
Gaynor Macfarlane's Woman's Hour Drama production offered a
fascinating study of one woman's futile search for self-determination. The story is straightforward enough: in 1913 Karen
Blixen (Emma Fielding) travels to Kenya to marry her second cousin Bror (Sam Dale), and finds herself saddled with the responsibility
of running an enormous - if financially unsuccessful - coffee plantation. To do this task properly, she must try to understand
Africa; in the process of cultural acclimatization, she learns something about herself.
In the first episode ("The Cuckoo,") Karen identified herself with the rolling African
landscape, which to her represented something timeless. This was an important step for her; hitherto she had never been
very confident of her identity. Although her name was Karen, her husband insisted on calling her "Tanya," suggesting that
she had no fixed and stable identity. By imagimatively projecting herself
"out of Africa" (understood in this context as her humdrum life on the plantation), she consciously created an identity
for herself, enabling her to tell her story in confident, self-assertive tones.
As the adaptation unfolded, however, so Macfarlane showed Karen's narrative
stance gradually changing, as she came to rely more and more on the support of her close friend Denys Finch-Hatton
(Tom Goodman-Hill). Rather than managing the farm, she recalled with obvious relish her forays into the wild, where
she helped Denys to kill and skin two lions; and her flights in his private plane, where the two of them surveyed
the rolling African landscape. Rather than identifying herself with African culture, she embraced the colonialist
mentality, as personified by a dominant male character. Her choice cast a shadow over her desire to
be buried on a ridge overlooking the Ngoing hills; although insisting to listeners that this was inspired by love
for her adopted country, we felt that this another was an example of colonialism. Her grave would provide a
lasting tributre to the power she exercised as manager of her farm.
In the final episode ("The Giraffes go to Hamburg") Karen lamented the fact that
she had to return home to Denmark, as she no longer had sufficient finances to continue running the farm. Denys had achieved
his wish of being buried in Africa (having perished in an air-crash), but Karen's dream had ended. Macfarlane stressed how
the meaning of the phrase "out of Africa" had changed for Karen; whereas once it had acquired a positive connotaton (symbolizing
her identification with the landscape), now it was wholly negative, as Karen moved "out of Africa" for good.
What had the experience of living in Africa done for her? Macfarlane's production
offered few answers. Karen had briefly flirted with life as an independent woman, but had given it up as she embraced
Denys's devil-may-care existence. As a result she became an outsider - a
powerless foreigner in a strange country, feeling rather like the two giraffes who were being transplanted from their
native habitat to the Hamburg zoo. We might have felt sorry for her - as she tried and failed to identify with her surroundings
- but understood at the same time that she was entirely responsible for her own demise.