No Picnic on Kenya

Publication Year: 1953.

No Picnic on Kenya, by Felice Benuzzi. viii + 238 pages, with sketches and end-paper sketch map. New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1953.

Fuga sul Kenya and Kenya, ou La Fugue Africaine, the titles of the original Italian edition and the French edition of 1950, befit this remarkable story as the one above does not; for “ escapade” this expedition was, with the tragicomedy which the several meanings of that word suggest. In spite of an empty title, climbers in this country will be pleased to have an American edition to supplement last year’s British edition of a story which will continue to be told and retold. In it, the urges and rewards of mountaineering are displayed in a situation so strange as to be absurd, but pathetically and wonderfully so.

Benuzzi was a prisoner of war in a British camp at the foot of Mount Kenya, having been interned as an Italian colonial official in Ethiopia in 1941. Tantalized by the constant sight of Mount Kenya, he recruited two fellow prisoners and labored secretly with them for months, laying plans, procuring supplies, and improvising equipment. Eventually, in the winter of 1943, they escaped the compound, attempted Batian, climbed Lenana, and then even slipped back into the compound uncaptured.

If other mountaineers chafe under the restrictions of daily life, then Benuzzi suffered so much the more under the total loss of his freedom. If others have gained hope and delight in assembling equipment and maps, then Benuzzi experienced this in proportion to the difficulties of hammering crampons out of scrap steel from the rubbish pile (and making rings for them from the barbed wire of the compound), of altering stolen hammers into ice axes, and of puzzling out a route from such scanty evidence as a drawing of Mount Kenya on the label of a meat and vegetable can - all in secret. To contemplate leaving the numbing security of the compound for the dangers of escape, of traversing big game country unarmed, and of braving a 17,000-foot peak with inadequate clothing, the rudest of equipment, and a grave lack of food grotesquely represents the qualms and inertia of any climber breaking with the comforts of home for a while. The rewards were also magnified, and the joy of their temporary freedom was such as could only be felt by escaped prisoners sitting high on a great peak and actually gazing down at the place of their imprisonment.

The climb was superbly impractical and pointless, as most climbs may be in a less spectacular way. In fact, the net material result was disciplinary confinement and then transfer to a sterner camp. Yet this story beautifully discloses the fallacy of such an evaluation, for the anticipation and the memory of the climb were the very things which carried these men with spirit through the tedium of their internment.

The writer has managed to carry off this account with humor and lightness. The first few pages may be too perfunctory to successfully establish the oppression and stagnation of the prison camp, but the story moves easily after that. Some readers may miss the Mount Kenya photographs of the French edition, but all will be pleased with the story.

Arthur K. Gilkey

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