Category Archives: Huxley, Elspeth

The Mottled Lizard: Read from June 12 to 25, 2014

While this book, the sequel to The Flame Trees of Thika, is not as focused or carries the same mystical newness of discovery as in the first book, it is, in a way, an even better book because of what it attempts to do: define what Africa is as a real place where real people live.

Much of the first half of the book deals with different forms of magic, be it Elspeth’s attempts to perform conjuring tricks from mail-order magic kits from England, or the black-magic used by the Kikuyu to punish someone who is guilty. More subtly is the magic of life and death, and death plays a much larger role in this book than in the first. In fact so much of surviving in Africa meant coming to terms with how fleeting life can be.

When Tilly’s cousin, Hillary, visits them his last act is to photograph the arch of the back of their pet cat. And while this may seem rather silly, it is a lasting image for the transitory nature of life, the need to always be in the moment before death (and death is quite savage here) finds you.

Huxley also goes to great lengths to draw the dividing line between who the Europeans are and who the Africans are. Not that she tries to segregate them, but to show how both ways of life are valid – in fact in Africa the European way of life is rather silly since the Africans know better than a bunch of foreigners about how to survive.

One of the differences she points out is, “Since routine is simply a means of controlling time, Europeans are better at it, and therefore accomplish more in a day, a month, or a year. They pay in monotony. Africans control time less efficiently, but enjoy it more: they pay in stagnation.” Yet even with all of Robin and Tilly’s (mostly Tilly’s) industry, they are by the end of the novel almost having to start all over again. They are always poor, their plans always fail, death is ever-present, yet they are not the typical European’s, they learned from the Kikuyu and the enjoy life much more.

Another point of difference she tries to explain is how the two cultures are equally sophisticated, but in very different ways. A fundamental difference in culture, she explains, is in the difference with how the Europeans play games but the Kikuyu do not. A European understands rules (rule of law) and plays within those rules (innocent until proven guilty) but the Kikuyu do not play games or sports and as that relates to law, they know if someone is guilty and that a “conviction” will eventually come – as long as they are sure there won’t be any black magic or the accused isn’t in good with the family – they can just blame someone else and just blackmail the “guilty”. This may seem harsh or primitive, but it’s just another way to get along.

Yet we too have our magic and superstitions. Robin tells the story of a general who dies of a stroke and on the next day of the platoon inspection a white cat comes along and an officer, quick on his feet, says the spirit of the dead general was now in the cat. The troops salute the cat. And while we don’t believe in magic and shape shifting, the idea is still there in tradition. We recognize that there is a trick, not real magic, but we intuit it all the same. We are more “primitive” than we admit and can be just as quick to throw skepticism out the window as the Kikuyu.

The book is filled with these examples of what first appear to be very different cultures but she eventually manages to show how similar they really are depending on your point of view. Late in the book Alan and Tilly argue about Alexander The Great where Tilly believes he was just a mass murderer but Alan believes he is like the wildfire and drought, he clears out the old and weak to make room for the new and strong. Both opinions are right depending on where you place your moral emphasis.

And as the book goes I got the feeling we were going further and further back in time, back to when Africa may have been mythical Eden. The family move further away from Thika which has become more built up, she describes the safari they go on, and finally the great fire and purging of the land as if we were at the beginning of creation.

In all this is a remarkable book and between the two books I felt as if she was giving us a step-by-step guide to understanding Africa as an actual place peopled with actual human beings, not savages or slaves. And she is a middle figure of history. She feels the rush of excitement of killing an animal on the hunt while at the same time feeling guilty in that thrill and understanding all this killing for sport will eventually lead to collapse. She is the prototype for the environmentalists and conversationalists to come a few decades later. She is writing about a very brief but very important moment in history, a powerful but fleeting time when there was so much change made up of an inertia that could not not be stopped.

Africa is a much different place today, for better and for worse. This book, and the previous, are invaluable to understanding the very soul of the continent as well as what drove white people to settle there and try to make a better life for themselves. For a brief moment Africa was like America where people from all over the world came, but because they could never live with each other, because they didn’t learn the lessons Elspeth learns, the outcome was much different and much sadder.

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We get a picture of how these settlers took on land, dealt with the banks, sold property, made plans, and moved about so freely but also a little oppressed by all this land and wildness. I like how families had to prove they owned £500 worth of goods and loaded up the ox wagon and drove it past the loan officer but every family used the same stuff. Everyone here ‘cheats’ .

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This book is far more nuanced in the difference is culture and of change (the officer transforming from a meek husband to a centurion, or if death all around. She strips away the magic to reveal the real. These books are a step by step process for understanding the African mind.

She focuses a lot on magic, her’s and theirs and the differences and similarities between the two.

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“Since routine is simply a means of controlling time, Europeans are better at it, and therefore accomplish more in a day, a month, or a year. They pay in monotony. Africans control time less efficiently, but enjoy it more: they pay in stagnation.”

“My cook was a cannibal, and I’m never quite sure whether I’ve converted him, or he’s converted me; we have some rather odd meals.”

And poor Tilly from the 1st book.

The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood: Read from March 26 to April 28, 2014

Ever get to the end of a book and contemplate flipping back to the first page and starting all over again? This is a book whose world I just want to continue living in but, like the ending of a book, is a world that just doesn’t exist anymore. So much of the book, though it deals with people trying to start a new frontier life in Africa, is really about the ending of things, specifically the end of old Europe with the onset of World War 1.

Elspeth, in the last chapter, writes about how she realized, quite suddenly and with some fright, how strangely interconnected all things are in life. She blames herself for the death of Kate, not because of any direct fault of her own, but the indirect responsibility she had in the wounding of a buffalo. All of a sudden the rational world she felt so sure of was gone and now replaced with uncertainty. One could also quite easily see how people might then turn to superstition and folk magic to explain their place in the universe. Charms, sacrifices, ceremonies, all the ways of life for the native Africans don’t then seem so strange when we look at it through the lens of our own uncertainty in the scheme of the universe.

But this one death and this one series of events is, all the while, back-dropped by the war in Europe. Events there of a much larger scale were colliding and would claim the lives of millions of people who were caught up in events they could not foresee or control. Ian being the earliest example of a victim to circumstance.

The whole book is filled with the parallels of their lives and that of WW1: the irrigation trenches being filled with water mirror the trenches of the un-moving fronts, the tribal warfare parallels the conflict between nation states. In some ways the book is as much about what happened to the whole world at the beginning of the 20th century as it is about one young girls’ experience growing up in Africa with her pioneering and liberal thinking parents.

Elspeth makes a strong case for how the world should behave. She always details the solutions that people come up with be it how best to grow coffee in Africa, deal with tribal politics, or deal with some unusual neighbors – she is always looking for a way to make things work. And it’s no wonder because much of the world was totally breaking down.

But she never becomes sentimental about her experiences. Yes it is a very romantic setting and stunningly beautiful, but Elspeth is a realist who leans towards cautious optimism. The characters in the book earn all their emotions, and there is never any melodrama or silliness here. And a lot of how she makes this work is by seeing the world through such a young persons eyes. She only ever gets to see and hear snippets of what’s going on around her so she, like us, have to piece so much together.

This books great strength is that it takes us to that time and place, makes us empathize with this little girl and gets us to see the world for what it could be without ever cheating us emotionally. This is a brilliant story; one of the greatest books I have ever read. In fact, I place this book right alongside Sergey Aksakov’s “A Family Chronicle” as one of the finest pieces of writing ever published.

I absolutely adore this novel like nothing else I have ever read.

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Though she is still too young, it’s obvious she had some inkling of a crush on Ian. She used the image of not knowing when the pigeons breed as a nice way to hint at it. And because of her barely awakened feeling toward Ian that we feel his death all the more even though she herself does not seem much sentimental over it. I guess it’s that looking back that we get the feeling of loss more than at the time of it.

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I keep trying to stretch this book out because I don’t want it to end!

The chapters where she is away are like an Eden. She describes the difficulty the Dutch, and first Europeans came upon in such difficult country. No wonder the people who had already been living there a million years were so much more easy-going and not given to much innovation – it’s just too difficult. Better to just be at peace with the land

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One of the more subtle things about this book I really enjoy is how much happens that you have to infer. Huxley, being just a child (though a clever one), is not party to all the important, grown-up conversation, but she can see the effects and she reads people better than most people expect a child can.

The image of the war coupled with her on the new farm and the digging of a trench is wonderful and sad, too.

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Too bad more people aren’t like her father. It never occurred to Mr. Roos that the Africans knew perfectly well how everything works and that stealing the cattle would be quite easy just because the Europeans thought they were not smart enough.

So much smug superiority and outright racism – so much based on an idea of culture and ‘civilization’ like baking pies, and pianos.

Who’s the dummy now? Very funny.

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There is a real moment of magic when the leopard is killed and she touches its still warm body and remarks at how perfect an animal it is. Huxley is connecting the many worlds she lives in – the European, the Africa, and the world in-between the two: the spirit world. The story then goes on to show how this became a part of her growth: losing Sparkle, and the python, goat, and the pregnant woman’s fear.

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I love the story of how the eyes hyenas at night just beyond the campfire could actually be the eyes of a dead relative who wants to exact revenge for some wrong you did to them in life.

Interesting juxtaposition between the shipping of the piano (a bit of culture in an ‘uncultured’ land) with that of how Mr. Roos leaves dead meat hanging around to ward off flies and he engages in the low-cunning of leopard traps.

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The analogy Elspeth uses about the hand mixer shows she has a much deeper understanding of how Africa works(ed) than most other Europeans. She understands (as does Tilly and Robin) that witchcraft lives right alongside medicine here. Africans have been ‘making the cake’ for millions of years just as Europeans have been making theirs and it’s all turned out just fine, even of the ingredients are different.

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It’s funny that the harder the Huxley’s try to make Africa more like Europe the exact opposite seems to happen. They’ve actually resorted to rounding up cattle as hostage bargaining against witchcraft.

The concept of property, morality, and even how to treat animals is so different. From the Huxley’s POV is frustrating, but to the African’s it’s perfectly normal

She does a nice job of conveying this frustration

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The humor in this book is very subtle. As everything is from the POV of a child, we can see how silly a lot of the Europeans are. They sit around under a shade tree, poking sticks at ants, talking about nonsense as the Africans do all the work. They complain the African women do all the hard labor and they want to change the culture, but they have no idea what’s really going in.

“Civilized by Italians”

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When you think of Africa and living out in the bush you would probably think of local festivals as exotic as the people. Here, Huxley is still too small to discover much about that population so she can only witness how unusual her own family and the other white people are. Celebrating New Year’s is a strange custom to a little child (eating flaming candies) and the drunkenness.

That pony is hearty.

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In Grizzly Man, Herzog said “I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature”. Here, Huxley is saying something almost the same. The people are absolutely un-nostalgic, everything is trying to eat everything else, and every action to improve the land is met with a thousand frustrations. She even talks about how there are no traces of any old civilization in Africa, it all gets lost to time.

Yet it’s not bleak.

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It’s funny when you realize you’ve been reading a character wrong: Tilly is her mother, not her older sister.

Huxley writes in a very interesting way to make you feel as if you too are a child not fully comprehending everything around you from an adult point of view but from a child’s point of view. It’s a bit tricky to read at first but fun once you just go with it.

A High Wind In Jamaica is similar.

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I vaguely remember watching the BBC/PBS series when it was on WAY back in 1980. I don’t remember any specifics other than what she does when she leaves the house at the end, but I do remember thinking how exotic it all sounded and how exciting it must have been to live there.

Huxley writes beautifully and can immediately create a character and whole dynamic with just a few words.

She calls her dad by his name.