Little light in the heart of darkness

After 40 years, Paul Theroux returns to Africa where he began writing

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"Safari," in Swahili, has little to do with goggling at big animals; it simply means "journey," a word used to say someone is far away. This, writes Paul Theroux, in the opening to his latest travel book, is exactly why he came to Africa: to escape a life infested with e-mail and cell phones - all the pinging, buzzing ways one can be easily located. "I was in such regular touch," he writes, "it was like having a job, a mode of life I hate."

Theroux could have cut himself off just as well in Switzerland. Africans, already on the margins of the world's attention, don't want to disappear any further. It was by choice that Theroux didn't walk into an Internet cafe in a cell-sized wooden shack in almost any African shantytown and get his wife in Hawaii to fax him the New York Times crossword puzzle.

Still, who can resist the image of Theroux nearing his 60th birthday, hitching a ride on the back of a cattle truck, wearing a cast-off red T-shirt from a plumber in America which, like the other African passengers, he bought for a few coins from a stall on the side of the road? That sense of anonymous, unfettered travel is heady, and why we read Theroux.

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But his image of Africa as a "dark star" waiting to swallow up the Western traveler is a 19th-century holdover - albeit one he tries to cure by reading "Heart of Darkness" 12 times on his trip from Cairo to Cape Town. He describes Africa as another planet, where, like the literary ancestor he claims in Arthur Rimbaud, he can vanish without a trace. Yet, in another way, traveling through Africa's vastness - desert, savannah, sea-like lakes - does clear the mind, like sweeping your arm across a cluttered desk.

And where Theroux sees Africa uncluttered by preconceived notions, his writing can be brilliant. He wanders war-torn Sudan with a guide who sleeps in the sand, looking for pyramids; watches a man feeding hyenas mouth-to-mouth outside the ancient walls of an Ethiopian city; explores the hot engine room of a ferry crossing Lake Victoria, and meets an engineer doing complex algorithms in only his underpants and earplugs.

But where Theroux has traveled before - 40 years ago, as first a Peace Corps teacher, then a lecturer at Uganda's Makerere University in the golden years just after the country's independence - he sees Africa not for what it is, but for what it might have been. Nothing is more exhausting than his 100-page tirade describing things that do not exist: roads, real government, a future.

Halfway through the book, Theroux's writing takes on the hectoring, aggrieved tone of a letter-writer to a small-town newspaper, complaining about litter or bad driving as if it were a personal affront. These days, as book after book describes how corrupt, inefficient, and dirty Africa is, surely Theroux realizes that what he is saying, while truthful, is no longer new, no longer shocking, and no longer worth writing about in this particular way. It takes an elderly British nurse who has spent most of her life in Africa, to put Theroux's naiveté into perspective. Africans "will die," she says, "They will just die." Knowing her work is useless, that in the era of AIDS, she cannot stem the tide of patients, she still continues, without complaint.

Admittedly, Theroux reserves most of his vitriol for Western aid workers, riding around in shiny white Land Cruisers, refusing to give him a lift. But he fails to see how his criticism - that Western aid depends on melodrama, and is ultimately self-serving - could also apply to himself. Readers want writing that elicits our emotions, not emotional writing.

In such dreary passages on Uganda, Kenya, and Malawi, readers may long for the ironic, witty side of Theroux, even the downright rude side. Hoping for a fatwa (Theroux was always competitive), he describes the posture of a praying Muslim as like a dog hugging a soccer ball.

Ultimately, though, what saves "Dark Star Safari" from being a long gasp of disillusion, is his meditations on aging. Theroux planned to celebrate his 60th birthday in Africa, the continent where, 40 years ago, he first defined himself as an explorer of the world beyond America and wrote his first book. "The old are not as frail as you think," he writes. "They are full of ideas, hidden powers, even sexual energy."

When Theroux gets irritable if Africans call him "mzee," old man, he's forgetting it's a word of respect. And it's the patience of this aging writer that readers of his book may most respect: the patience to wait for days on end - for visas, for a lift, for the truck to be fixed. And more than that: to treat the waiting as an opportunity to really listen to Africans - like the Ethiopian journalist thrown into prison by the Derg who translated the only available book, "Gone with the Wind," into Amharic, writing on the foil in his cigarette packs. Africans may have no future, but they have their stories.

• Henk Rossouw is the Africa correspondent for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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