Peace Corps Writers
Review
   
Dark Star Safari
Overland from Cairo to Cape Town
by Paul Theroux (Malawi: 1963–65)
Houghton Mifflin Co.
March 2003
496 pages
$28.00
(Buy this book)

Dark Star Safari
  Reviewed by Sharon Dirlam
(Russian Far East 1996–98)
 
  John Coyne interviewed Paul Theroux for this issue of Peace Corps Writers.

See also "Living on the Edge: Paul Theroux"

PAUL THEROUX HAS DEVELOPED a reputation as a travel writer who informs and entertains while being acutely perceptive and at the same time coldly judgmental.
Printer friendly version      In Dark Star Safari, he sets out to travel the length of Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town, staying as far as possible off the tourist trail. From the chaos and filth of urban slums to small isolated villages, Theroux listens to people’s stories, argues with bureaucrats, rides hideously derelict buses and trains, and records his impressions.
     He rounds out his account with descriptions written by earlier travelers, Flaubert and Rimbaud in particular. And his narrative includes extensive reporting from political and historical records, contextualizing his personal observations.
     Theroux proudly describes his own sense of adventure: “They said the road was the most dangerous in Africa, and so, of course, I wanted to go there.”
     He’s at his best when he gets people along the way to tell him their stories; he captures the tone of their personalities and the substance of their experiences. These include Africans who spent years as political prisoners, old friends from his days in the Peace Corps, a couple of young prostitutes, taxi drivers, and white settlers whose lives have been defined by decades of turbulence and insecurity.
     He spends time with Nadine Gordimer, whose writing he praises, and talks about other national writers he admires, including Naguib Mahfouz, writing about Egypt, Shusaku Endo in Japan and R. K. Narayan in India. He faults the writing of his old friend, Nobel prize winner V.S. Naipaul, saying everything Naipaul wrote about Africa “was informed by the fear that he had known as an isolated Hindu child in black Trinidad,” so that Naipaul wrote as “an outsider who feels weak.”
     Theroux’s metaphors and images are captivating: “wooden plows shaped like wishbones,” “the mud stink rose like part of the darkness,” and “fingerless lepers screeching for alms like a procession of tax collectors.”
     He reports dispassionately about a woman cowering in a doorway as she is beaten with a heavy stick by a turbaned older man, and, later, about a naked man chased down by a howling mob that caught and killed him. Theroux lists some of the reason he likes Africa: “the lepers, hyenas, ivory tusks, and garbage; the complaining donkeys, the open drains, the tang of spices, the moans of people’s prayers, the dark-eyed invitation to a shadowy hut.”
     Theroux finds tourists beneath contempt, and sets forth his scorn in deliciously wry detail, describing their African tours as “safari-as-charade” in which “safari geeks wearing whipcord jodhpurs and pith helmets, jog along in a Land Rover.” He contrasts this with his own “safari-as-struggle, including public transport, fungal infections, petty extortion, mocking lepers, dreary bedrooms, bad food, exploding bowels, fleeing animals, rotting schoolrooms, meaningless delays, and blunt threats.”
     Humanitarian aid workers incur his scorn as well; he blames them for causing more problems in Africa than they ever solved. Foreign charities “had been at it for decades, and the situation was more pathetic than ever,” he writes. Some charity workers remind him of “people herding animals and throwing food to them.”
     He called a pair of aid workers who refused to give him a ride in their Land Rover “selfish, self-dramatizing prigs,” and he described a pair of missionaries he noticed on the train as “cookie-eating, Christ-bitten evangelists,” pale, blotchy, sunburned and bulky.
     Theroux said he dislikes Ernest Hemingway, “from his shotgun to his mannered prose,” calling him “both a tourist and a big-game hunter.”
     As for the future of Africa, Theroux finds hope not in the urban slums, relief projects or political change, but in the daily struggle of the subsistence farmers in the bush, growing enough to feed their families, managing to survive on their own.
     Theroux admires and exemplifies the disconnection of the lone traveler: “The best writers were scrupulous, pitiless observers.” Still, he is aware of his impact on the reader. He ruminates on how nice it would be if someone reading the narrative of his African trip and felt that it was the next best thing to being there — “or even better, because reading about being shot at and poisoned and insulted was in general less upsetting than the real thing.” Except, of course, for Theroux himself, who wouldn’t miss such experiences for the world.
 
Sharon Dirlam, a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, is the author of Beyond Siberia, a yet-to-be-published nonfiction narrative about her Peace Corps service, and two stories published in Travelers’ Tales: A Woman’s World.
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