Nikolai Gumilev's "The African Hunt": On a Continent Awaiting "Guests"

Gwen Walker, University of Wisconsin, Madison

In this paper I examine Gumilev’s autobiographical sketch “The African Hunt” (1916) to consider how it sheds light on his legendary passion for big game and his supposed sympathy for imperialist causes (with a connection between the two being indirectly suggested by the author himself). To be sure, Gumilev’s reputation as both avid hunter and would-be colonizer owes something to his own creative reworking of his African experience, particularly in poetry whose lyric personae (conflated at times with their creator) unreflectingly assert their mastery over man and beast alike. “The African Hunt,” however, reveals a more three-dimensional image of Gumilev in Africa. Rather than assume the pose of the dashing adventurer who delights in bending the continent to his will, the author of this work shows himself as deeply if subconsciously troubled by his role in a fragile environment where the survival of rare species, like the autonomy of native peoples, hangs from a tenuous thread. 

Gumilev’s memoirists take for granted his unflagging enthusiasm for the hunt and in some cases, it would seem, exaggerate it – often weaving in apocrypha that touch on his relationship to Africa’s indigenous populations. Irina Odoevceva recalls him battling savages and offering an attractive lady the skin of a leopard. Gumilev’s sister-in-law, A. Gumileva, tranquilly draws upon his African poetry for information about his activities on the continent, and consequently has him questing after a great, elusive elephant (reminiscent of the Zulu speaker in “Zambezi”) and retaining a waist-high pygmy as guide (as does the Frenchman in “Equatorial Forest”). And Georgij Ivanov describes how the writer once led a detachment of loyal natives across the Sahara. Gumilev’s self-portrait calls into question such popular myths. In “The African Hunt” he tempers his unflinching, unsentimental account with narrative techniques that underscore the connection between human and animal, to hint in the end at his own ambivalence about the sport he initially seems to celebrate. As a study of the hunter’s soul, the work is already multifaceted. Its richness grows still more, however, through a subtly drawn analogy whereby the killing of big game finds a parallel in the efforts of competing powers to overturn Africa’s last native emperor, Menelik II of Abyssinia. Gumilev thus emerges from his own autobiographical prose as a more tentative, often humble visitor in a land that, in his words, opens itself to “guests” rather than “masters.”