West with the Night by Beryl Markham
Like the man who “rediscovered” this memoir and was instrumental in having it republished in 1983, I was impressed with the quotation by Hemingway on the cover to the effect that she “can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers”. There’s a breathless quality to the writing: there are delightful and original figures of speech and there’s wisdom gained from a childhood where mentors are as much the elders of the African tribes she grows up with as that of her own father.
A herd of elephant, as seen from a plane, has a quality of an hallucination. The proportions are wrong—they are like those of a child’s drawing of a field mouse in which the whole landscape, complete with barns and windmills, is dwarfed beneath the whiskers of the mighty rodent who looks both able and willing to devour everything, including the thumb-tack that holds the work against the schoolroom wall.
Safaris come and safaris go, but Makula goes on forever. I suspect at times that he is one of the wisest men I have known—so wise that, realizing the scarcity of wisdom, he has never cast a scrap of it away, though I still remember a remark he made to an overzealous newcomer to his profession: ‘White men pay for danger—we poor ones cannot afford it. Find your elephant and then vanish, so that you can live to find another.’
Markham grew up on a coffee farm in British East Africa (later Kenya) where her father also kept horses, as gradually training race horses captured his [and her] interest full time. There was no mother (you have to read elsewhere to discover that her mother and elder sibling left Africa early on and returned to Britain). Her playmates were Africans and so were her mentors. One child she played with ended up her principal servant and companion in adult hood—and called her “Memsahib”. Her childhood influences were probably more African than British. When she was nearly 18, her father’s farm failed and he went to try his luck in Peru. She decided to stay and became a successful horse trainer herself until she met Tom Black who inspired her to learn to fly, though her eventual inspiration to take up flying seriously was the death of hunter and flyer Denys Finch Hatton in his plane. By the mid-thirties, she was flying passengers and the mail, rescuing the injured and taking them to safety. Eventually, with Baron Blixen (husband of Karen—Isak Dinesen) she joined the “big white hunters” on safaris, scouting for elephant by plane, though to her credit, even then she hated to see the elephants killed. She never mentions husbands, lovers or child. Nor does she mention Karen Blixen. Only her love for Africa and her work with horses and with planes.
Once I finished the book—which I enjoyed very much—I looked up Beryl Markham on the net, primarily because I was interested in her life and in the information she left out (what happened to her mother… the men in her life…) and discovered there is at least one biographer who says she didn’t write it, but that it was written by her third husband, Raoul Schumacher. Her other biographer stoutly denies the charge.
I can’t arbitrate that controversy, but I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Beryl Markham lived until 1986 in Kenya; she’s been living in obscurity and near poverty until the revival of the book brought her some notice and some money.