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.