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The Last Colonials : I DREAMED OF AFRICA, By Kuki Gallman (Viking: $22.95; 312 pp.) : STARLINGS LAUGHING, By June Vendall Clark (William Morrow: $23; 304 pp.)

June 23, 1991|Carolyn Slaughter | Slaughter is the author of "Dreams of the Kalahari" (Simon & Schuster)

There are people--often from aristocratic and cultured backgrounds--who go to Africa to seek, in the wild and primitive country, a release from the cossetted confines of Europe. What they really seek is the primitive side of their own nature, and very often they find it.

From earliest times, those in search of their shadows were drawn more often to Kenya, because there, in some of the most spectacular and beautiful scenery in the world, Arab mingles with African to make a spicy brew of races, cultures and religions.

Isak Dinesen is the most famous of these spiritual adventurers, and her exquisite memoir "Out of Africa" most hauntingly captures the loveliness and grandeur of East Africa. The eloquence and wisdom of this book is heightened almost unbearably (or at least to those of us who suffer the same affliction) by the longing for Africa felt by one who has lost it.

Kuki Gallman's autobiography, "I Dreamed of Africa," is set in much the same terrain as that immortalized by Dinesen. Gallman was born near Venice; as a little girl she watched the swallows departing for Africa and longed to migrate with them to the land of our earliest ancestors.

Unfortunately, the first sections of the book are leaden and uninspiring. We learn of Gallman's life before Africa: a brief marriage, followed by divorce; the birth of a son, Emanuele, and two near-fatal car accidents. The last accident (which she shared with a man she was later to marry, Paolo Gallman) crippled her for some years. She and Paolo set off for Africa, hoping for a new life; in a ranch in the highlands of what was once British Colonial East Africa, they come close to paradise.

Here, Gallman the writer finds her wings. She whirls us across open savannah dotted with acacia trees, untouched cedar forests and pale hills lapped by lagoons and sleeping islands, blue with waterlilies.

It is the mid-'70s, still a time of safaris, big-game hunting and legendary white hunters--a time when game was so prolific that it was unimaginable to think it would ever end. Both this memoir, and "Starlings Laughing," which is set in Botswana, show the devastation of that dream.

The Gallmans have a vast ranch at Laikipia, in a region that stretches from Mount Kenya to the Great Rift Valley. Here, cattle and sheep graze freely with the wildlife and are rounded up at nightfall to protect them from leopard and lion. Here, one meets buffalo and elephant on an evening stroll, and can nip off in a small plane to take lunch at one of the Arabic villages along the coast.

On the coast (where once Arabs collected slaves and spices), the air is hot and humid, overripe with the scent of jasmine, frangipani and mango. In palm-lined villages, people of Italian and French extraction dine on Neopolitan food served by red-fezzed servants in villas reminiscent of home.

The Europeans living here-- having retired from large estates in the highlands--have an overripe quality too, as they down pink gins at the club and remember the good old days: the fading intoxication of a life of too much ease and beauty that went quickly to rot.

All this comes vividly to life in "I Dreamed of Africa." Not so the people closest to the author, who are sketchy and insubstantial. Gallman views the men in her life in romantic and mythical terms: as warriors, hunters, princes. They are frequently light of foot, bronzed of cheek and golden of hair. The book as a whole suffers from overblown descriptions. As her story progresses, it is further marred by an impending sense of doom, often exacerbated by unfortunate cliff-hangers at the end of chapters.

Then the tragedies begin. It seems that all her life the author surrounded herself with sad or spiritual men who, one way or the other, were intent on fleeing this world. Gallman's husband, before his fatal car accident, had made plans for his reincarnation and given instruction for his funeral.

After Paolo's death, Gallman's son begins to sidle closer and closer to self-destruction, by means of a dangerous passion for snakes. It is only after the death of her son that the author--earthbound, practical, intent on not knowing--suddenly turns and the book swells with her transformation. At last, facing the anguish of Emanuele's death without the cloaking habits of self-control and denial, she connects with something profound within herself. As a result, the final sections of the book are enriched by the wisdom of acceptance and reconciliation.

Gallman creates a memorial for her dead by starting a foundation to preserve the endangered wildlife, land and people of her adopted country. She has learned that to live deeply, one must find the ability to connect fully with the earth and the people on it; in doing so, Gallman transcends her personal sorrow.

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