- The Washington Times - Monday, May 12, 2003


By Paul Theroux

Houghton Mifflin, $28, 496 pages


Paul Theroux’s “Dark Star Safari” is dark even by the standards of this notably peevish author, but it is a compelling read and a remarkable adventure that few tourist-travelers in the present age would dare attempt.

In his 60th year, Mr. Theroux undertook a journey that was something of a pilgrimage, going by mostly local transport — including dugout canoe — through the whole of the African continent’s easternmost countries and renewing acquaintance with some of the places he knew 40 years earlier as a Peace Corps volunteer and teacher.

His account, while excessive in length, is an engagingly personal, no-holds-barred look at the people and politics of a large part of modern Africa.

In vivid prose and anecdotes, with insightful comment and observations, the writer presents a devastating picture of corruption and despair far greater than what he witnessed in his younger years.

The word for safari, Mr. Theroux reminds us early on, is Swahili for journey and has nothing to do with expensive guided trips to observe wild animals at play. His trip would prove grueling and physically debilitating enough that it might bear comparison with Dante’s hell in many ways, but he aims to take us with him, come what may. Pessimism is his lodestar. He writes on his first page one that “all news out of Africa is bad. It made me want to go there … .”

Determined to escape modern technological devices of communication, the traveler plunges into the maelstrom of a continent undergoing transition in ways he ultimately deplores.

“Urban life is nasty all over the world but it is nastiest in Africa — better a year in Tabora than a day in Nairobi.” (Tabora, he doesn’t pause to explain, is a very small town in Tanzania that is on his map but likely not on many others.)

Mr. Theroux’s guide is the French poet Rimbaud to whom he pays homage as someone who “had been so happy here. He had liked Africa for being the anti-Europe, the anti-West, which it is, sometimes defiantly, sometimes lazily. I liked it for those reasons, too, for there was nothing of home here. Being in Africa was like being on a dark star.”

Rimbaud, he reminds us, became a trader in Harar in Ethiopia, where he “took a quiet pleasure in Africa’s motley and unexpected satisfactions, its dustry congenialty. He was seeking relief from metropolitan phonies, literary trendspotters, hangers-on, time wasters, and ambitious importuning twits… . His mood I shared, his quest I celebrated.”

Mr. Theroux reserves his most scathing non-deliberative thoughts for his version of these latter day pests whom he identifies as the foreign aid workers and organizations arriving in their slick white vehicles to distribute what he takes to be counterproductive resources — a new form of colonialism in effect.

“Aliens had been so long entrenched that Africans lost interest — if indeed they ever had it — in doing the same sort of work themselves,” he writes.

And: “There was often a tone of melodrama among relief workers, charity in Africa frequently being a form of theater.” He is even harder on the missionary types, the mercilously self-rightous.

Mr. Theroux may be right to attack the arrogance of NGOs in their white vans whom he calls the capitalists of modernity, but his own arrogance surfaces now and then in annoying form, as when speaking of tourists on a Nile cruise ship, he says “I resisted mocking them because they were harmless and most were committed to geniality.”

Typical of the author’s style, literary allusions are constant. He manages in one paragraph to demolish Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” the classic African odyssey book. In a single page, he tells us how much he liked Andrew Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost” about the Belgians’ ravishing of the Congo, quotes from Vachel Lindsay’s poem “The Congo,” and brings in a line from James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

Just as predictably, Mr. Theroux sprinkles the text with throwaway judgments on the traveling life. As in “all travel is a lesson in self preservation” and, later, “one of the curiosities of travel is hearing nonnative speakers of English venting at each other in English.”

Moments of sanguinity and actual pleasure are rare, and they occur in unusual places. But when hasn’t unscheduled wandering produced unpredictable encounters, many of which provide delight for a reader sharing the writer’s precipitous path?

Mr. Theroux is elegiac describing his trip across Lake Victoria, the largest body of water in Africa, as guest on a ferry with a one-eyed first engineer. The boat is called the Umoja, which Mr. Theroux promptly informs us is the Swahili word for unity or oneness. The captain proves to be one of the most sympathetic characters in the book.

This is some 200 pages into his wayward route, having made his way down the Nile from Cairo, into Sudan and Ethiopia, even to Djibouti. Mr. Theroux finds the broken remains of the school building where he taught in Malawi and learns in Uganda that no one cares what the former professor has to say now. Uganda has become “a nation of two million [AIDS] orphans,” he writes, but there, at least, he had found a certain contentment “as a resident of a place I had begun to enjoy anew.” There he discovers to his relief that some educated citizens want to keep their children at home to build for the future and reverse the trend of outward emigration.

By then, the traveler has decided on one of the more quixotic activities of his trip: writing what he calls his exotic novel in down time, a humorous conceit of which the reader blessedly is spared except for one carefully placed sample paragraph offered up, one supposes, for comic relief.

“It sometimes seems as though Africa is a place you go to wait … Outsiders see Africa as a continent delayed — economies in suspension, societies up in the air, politics and human rights put on hold, communities throttled or stopped,” he writes while waiting for the ferry to carry him into Tanzania.

“But African time was not the same as American time… . As African time passed, I surmised that the pace of Western countries was insane, that the speed of modern technology accomplished nothing, and that because Africa was going its own way at its own pace for its own reasons, it was a refuge and a resting place, the last territory to light out for. I surmised this, yet I did not always feel it; I am impatient by nature.”

Many months later, after being shot at and held up and booted about, he does finally make it to Capetown.

Some of the most moving moments in South Africa take place during reunions in Johannesburg with novelist and anti-apartheid writer Nadine Gordimer, a Nobel laureate like the Arab writer Naguib Mahfouz whom he describes poignantly in the first chapter holding court in Cairo.

Johannesburg is an epiphany. Mr. Theroux loses money, air tickets, valuable souvenirs and passport left in a hotel’s locked strong room — but not the notes for this book — while on a side trip to the coast. Which shows that even experienced travelers of Mr. Theroux’s caliber can always learn.

Ann Geracimos is a reporter on the features desk at The Washington Times.

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