Africa by Plane

from West with the Night
Beryl Markham

You cannot hunt an animal with such a weapon [a spear] unless you know the way of his life. You must know the things he love, the things he fears, the paths he will follow. You must be sure of the quality of his speed and the measure of his courage. He will know as much about you, and at times make better use of it. . . .

That day my eyes were filled with clouds, but they were young enough eyes an they soon cleared. There were other days and other dik-dik. There were so many things.

There were dik-dik and leopard, kongoni and warthog, buffalo, lion, and the 'hare that jumps.; There were many thousands of the hare that jumps.

And there were wildebeest and antelope. There was the snake that crawls and the snake that climbs. There were birds, and young men like whips of leather, like rainshafts in the sun, like spear before a singiri.

Of her work, Hemingway had this to say:

from a Letter from Ernest Hemingway to Maxwell Perkins

Did you read Beryl Markham's book, West with the Night? I knew her fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer's log book. As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But [she] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers. The only parts of it that I know about personally, on account of having been there at the time and heard the other people's stories are absolutely true. . . . I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody wonderful book.

Considerable praise from such a luminary, and yet, praise that is substantiated by the book.  The prose is at times lyrical and broad, but also when required tightly focused and always streamlined.  The lyrical nature is not bought at the price of prolix descriptions of anything and everything, but rather with the same determined and careful choice of individual details--elements that make for great fiction.  Of course, there is a sense in which, memoir though it is, the book is also a fiction.  Not fiction as in the deliberate creation of a separate world, but a fiction in the sense that all of the detail all of the incident, all of the words and language written are recalled as from memory and not reconstructed to give us a sense of the place and the event.  This is not to say that it is not worthwhile as memoir, but that we must recall that all memoir is in large part fiction--reconstruction of what is past and no more accessible.  Even if every moment of our lives were subject to recording and we were to review the tapes daily (assuming it were possible), we cannot recapture except in memory our exact feelings or thoughts about what went on.  Nor will the real words say now what they said to us in that moment of time in which they were experienced.

Enough.  Ms. Markham's work is remarkable--not at all the sort of thing I would normal partake of, and all the more delightful for the break in the routine.


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