When I was sixteen, I was entranced by the memoir of Isak Dinesen’s [Karen Baroness von Blixen-Finecke, 1885-1962], Out of Africa (first published in 1937). Kenya had only been independent for three years when I first read the book, which is set in 1913-31. Blixen made many criticisms of colonial paternalism and the expropriation of land (Kikuyus could not legally own land!), but for all the time she spent alone with “the natives,” maintained assumptions of racial superiority that are gratingly obvious now.
I still like her upbeat voice and compassion for all the residents (black, white, animal) of Africa, though the generalizations about tribal characteristics make me suspicious. And the romance wit Dennis Fitch Hatton is mostly about flying and sharing enthusiasm for English poetry, while her husband goes entirely unmentioned until p. 228 (and then goes unmentioned through the rest of the book).
There must be distinctions between Somalis, Maasai, and Kikuyu. Blixen/Dinesen seems to me to romanticize the Somalis and to condescend to Kikukyu, but that she exerted herself to find someplace for her mass of squatters and their cattle to live after she was gone.
The classical anguish of the last part is still a bit scattershot, but not as miscellaneous as the middle “Immigrant’s Notebook.”
She records a particularly absurd nominalist, Count Schimmelmann, in “In the Menagerie”:
“The wild animals, which run in a wild landscape, do not really exist. This one [in a cage before the interlocutors] exists, we have a name for it, we know what it is like. The others might as well not have been, still they are the large majority. Nature is extravagant.
“They see each other.”
“Even that may be disputed. These giraffes, for instance, have got square markings on the skin. The giraffes looking at each other, will not know a square and consequently will not see a square. Can they be said to have seen each other at all?” [Besides which , as the phot above shows, the marks are not square…]
I moved on to Alan Booth’s (1946-93) The Roads to Sata (first published in 1985), an account of walking from the northernmost point of Hokkaido (Soya) to the southernmost point of Kyushu (Sata), approximately 3300 kilometers in 128 days in 1977. After Dinesen, it was a relief at the outset to read; “I have tried to avoid generalizations, especially ‘the Japanese.’” Alas, I don’t find much of interest in his observations of encounters with roughly twelve hundred Japanese.
Alas, what I find most interesting are not the accounts of the encounters, which consist of repeated shock that a gajin (foreigner) can speak Japanese and, secondarily, is not American. The astounded rural Japanese bought him many beers. And students astounded Booth by the English they learned in schools. (The reader can see why there are incomprehensible mangled English words on Japanese t-shirts.)
In the mid-1970s, Booth found the highways littered in discarded, unraveled cassette tapes. He walked through some industrial wastelands as well as beautiful seashores and mountains, refusing the many proferred rides. Pretty much no one could understand his wanting to walk to the next town, let alone all the way (the long way) across three of the four major islands.
The most memorable encounter for me was with a Hokkaido man who had been a Soviet prisoner for years (the Soviet Union only declared war against Japan at the very end, but seized prisoners and held on to them unconscionably long times in Sakhalin or Siberia).
The conversation matches Booth’s British dry wit with Japanese fatalism, and concerns Hokkaido bears. (The one pictured above is waiting to catch a food pellet in a Hokkaido bear park.)
The Hokkaido man told Booth that bears are the most predictable of animals—far more predictable than human beings, whom he confessed he had not much interest in and whom he thought overrates as a species.
“There are dozens of bears in the hills around the lake [Shikotsu]. They come down almost daily to the road over there.”
He pointed to the road I had just walked along, and I said “Oh, really?” with a great deal of nonchalance”
“You want to whistle or sing when you walk or have a bell and ring it from time to time, or band a stick. They won’t come near you unless they’re really hungry, and then it’s only your food they’ll want.”
I nodded pleasantly, having no food.
“If you turn a corner and you see a bear and it’s thirty meters away from you, you’ve no need to worry. The bear will run away. It’ll be more frightened than you are. If you turn a corner and you see a bear, say, twenty meters away, there’s still a good chance it won’t bother you. It’ll roar a bit just to let you know it’s there, but if you stand quite still it’ll probably get bored and go back into the forest. And, then, of course, if you turn a corner and you see a bear five or ten meters from you—“
“Then probably, I should start to worry.”
“Not really. You’ve no need to worry, Bears are the most predictable of animals. If it’s five meters away it’ll certainly kill you. There is no point in worrying at all.”
Though I think what the Hokkaido ex-POW said applies to North American bears, too, the artful buildup pleases me, whereas most other encounters Booth had were unilluminating about anything other than smug Japanese ethnocentrism. And these are interspersed with the misery of being rained on, trying to find roads, some of which exist only on maps, others of which are litter-edged motorways, sunburn, and mosquitoes.