Dark Star Safari
Reviewed by Heidi Boudro
Paul Theroux, "pessimistic globetrotter," is the author of two dozen works of fiction, including The Mosquito Coast, and more than a dozen nonfiction books, mostly travel accounts. I greatly enjoyed The Happy Isles of Oceania, in which Theroux paddled a kayak along the coasts of island nations of the Pacific.
I was eager to read his most recent book, about Africa, Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown. Theroux writes vividly and literately, but it is his ability to elicit the personal stories of those he meets, and to report them to us, that makes his books more than travel books.
In Dark Star Safari, he has many intriguing conversations with ordinary Africans. As a famous author, he also has audiences with intellectuals and government officials. Then there are his old friends, one of whom is unexpectedly the prime minister of Uganda. ("In Africa, everyone my age knew everyone else.") Theroux had lived and taught school in Malawi and taught at a university in Uganda in the 1960s.
Theroux travels overland through ten African countries by bus, train, ferry, and bush taxi; he is thwarted only by the closed border between Egypt and Sudan that necessitates a flight to Khartoum. His wish is to disappear into Africa, and he succeeds. As he journeys south through East Africa, he is usually the only non-African on any conveyance. Although Theroux unavoidably stands out as a white man, he speaks local languages such as Swahili and Chichewa. He buys second-hand clothes from the market the way Africans do.
There is a poignancy in Theroux's comparison of Africa today with the Africa he knew in the days of initial independence. Yet, Theroux can see with a fresh eye while also having the experience to know what he is seeing.
What he sees is unforgettable. The respect between him and the traditional Ethiopian trader who takes him to the border of Kenya. The friendly, open hospitality of the men on the cargo ferry that he takes across Lake Victoria. The honest, competent riverman who transports him by canoe in a remote part of Mozambique. Unhappily, there is also the wreckage of urban-slum Africa, warfare, and poverty.
Although East Africa is endlessly fascinating, Theroux himself surprises us. We glimpse a complex and not entirely pleasant man who is not fully available to the reader. At last, as he finds things to do to delay the final act of leaving Africa, I was as sorry that the book was coming to a close as Theroux was that his trip was coming to an end.
Copyright © 2004 by Heidi Boudro