Literature Study GuidesOut Of AfricaPart 1 Chapter 3 Summary

Out of Africa | Study Guide

Isak Dinesen

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Out of Africa | Part 1, Chapter 3 : Kamante and Lulu (The Savage in the Immigrant's House) | Summary

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Summary

One year, the long rains that normally last from March to June do not come. Day after day, the people wait while everything becomes dry and hard. There is no fresh grass for the cattle, the food crops wither, and the waterholes dry up. While the natives react with passivity—the perils of drought are nothing new—the narrator finds distraction and refuge in writing stories. The native houseboys find this nearly as intriguing as the herdboys find the noonday chiming of the cuckoo clock in the dining room. Just as the houseboys gather at night to watch the working of the typewriter, the herdboys quietly gather at midday to see and hear the cuckoo's call.

Kamante takes an interest in the narrator's writing, but he respectfully states that she cannot write a book. He points out that a real book is bound, hanging together "from one end to the other," like the books in her library. All of her pages are loose and scattered. The narrator explains how this will be fixed by people in Europe. A few days later, she overhears Kamante speaking to the houseboys, describing with authority the process of making a book.

Since Kamante's conversion to Christianity, he claims to not be afraid to touch a corpse—a great fear among the Kikuyu people. This claim is put to the test. A Danish man named Knudsen, old and blind, comes to live on the farm. He is physically bent and crooked, and has been beaten down by life. However, at heart, he is a fierce, wild-hearted romantic who tells stories of his life in which he is unbeaten and triumphant. When Old Knudsen dies along a path, Kamante willingly helps the narrator carry him back to his bungalow.

Analysis

In this chapter, "the savage" of the title is the untamed otherness of Africa, as defined by European standards. However, Blixen is not repelled by this otherness. On the contrary, it is the push and pull of contrasting qualities that attract her. Moments when opposing elements intrude on one another are welcomed, the contrast heightening the significance of each.

Opening with the statement "One year the long rains failed," Blixen describes the blessing of rain falling with its "deep fertile roar" to nourish the land. Then in contrast, she paints the bleakness of drought, when "the burnt plains lay black and waste." The passivity of the natives in the face of this adversity is distinctly different from Blixen's reaction—a nervous energy that she must harness by writing.

The distinction between the civilized life of her house and the untamed life of nature is symbolized by the German cuckoo clock. It is a useless luxury in Africa where the sun tells the time. Even so, it fascinates the native children on the farm, though they have no understanding of its use. The threshold they must cross to enter her home represents a barrier between her world and theirs.

Similarly, the book-writing episode highlights a difference, this time in cultural perceptions. Blixen calls attention to what Europeans take for granted. For them, as for her, the act of putting words on paper is "writing a book." To Kamante, writing a book is more; it is the thing itself, bound with a hard, expensive cover, preferably blue.

In the character of Old Knudsen, reality and imagination are in stark contrast. Outwardly, he is physically broken by the hardships of life, but inwardly has "an unquenchable flame." Within the frail body beats the "wild heart of a small boy." He is the consummate storyteller and the hero of his tales. While he actually has done poorly in life, he is a mighty figure in his glorious adventures.

Despite these contrasts, there are elements of unity. When native children cross the threshold and enter Blixen's house, they bring their milieu—the untamed, natural realm of Africa—into her home. In Old Knudsen, Blixen discovers a weaver of tales, like herself, a kindred spirit. Similarly, Kamante's conversion to Christianity creates a unifying link with Blixen that allows him to help her when Old Knudsen dies.

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