Battle-scarred land of lied-to people

Dark Star Safari

April 18, 2003

The last book by Paul Theroux I read was Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents - a most uncomfortable experience.

Theroux and V. S. Naipaul had met at Makerere University in Uganda in the mid-1960s. Theroux was on the staff from 1965-68, during which time he became a writer, husband, householder and father; the older Naipaul, already established as a writer, was a visiting fellow in 1966, sponsored by a US foundation. Always a stern critic, he nevertheless strongly encouraged Theroux's writing, and their friendship was quickly one of teacher and disciple. In 1972, Theroux published an adulatory study of Naipaul's work. The friendship appeared to blossom, but over the decades inside it curdled and went sour. Sir Vidia's Shadow is a jaundiced book in which the disciple turns on the master, believing himself to be his equal.

And the sourness seems to infect Theroux's latest book Dark Star Safari, which includes a number of references to his old friend. Discussing Naipaul with Nadine Gordimer, the South African author, and her circle, near the end of his journey through Africa, Theroux reports a comment: "Naipaul always wears such a gloomy face." And on almost the last page there is a final unflattering mention of Naipaul, citing a teasing newspaper headline Theroux sees by chance while travelling in the Cape National Park:

"Pessimistic globetrotter wins Nobel prize". What a pity!

Theroux is still brilliantly evocative, but something has gone from his writing in Dark Star Safari, which is an endless account of poverty, sickness, despair and discomfort as the author travels by train, truck and foot from Cairo to Cape Town. "All news out of Africa is bad," Theroux begins, "It made me want to go there." He recalls how he lived and worked happily in Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer, almost 40 years ago, "in the heart of the greenest continent". But on this long journey from Egypt through the Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique to South Africa, he finds that "Africans are the most lied-to people on earth - manipulated by their governments, befooled by charities, and cheated at every turn".

His implacable eye spares nothing. The sunlit Africa he once knew with its soft green emptiness of low flat-topped acacias, laughing children, great herds of wild animals and "every hue of human being from pink-faced planters in knee socks and shorts to brown Indians and Africans with black gleaming faces and... some people so dark they were purple", is now crowded with ragged fleeing refugees burdened by bundles. Only the red African roads are unchanged. "We're economic prisoners," one white South African small businessman explains. "We can't afford to go anywhere else." Theroux comes to feel that "being in Africa was like being on a dark star. I began to fantasize that the Africa I travelled through was often like a parallel universe, the dark star image in my mind, in which everyone existed as a sort of shadow-counterpart of someone in the brighter world."

According to him "travel is a sort of revenge for being put on hold" - cooped up at home and kept waiting. (The book is full of such epigrammatic writing.) While this is certainly true, here Theroux seems to take revenge on Africa, rather than on others. Where, among the desperate, the disillusioned and the damned he encounters, are those dedicated Africans who are trying to guide Africa out of the hopeless situation he describes? He sees only a battle-scarred land. Yet, as he himself concludes: "Only Africans were capable of making a difference in Africa. All the others, donors and volunteers and bankers, however idealistic, were simply agents of subversion."

Reading this book is like travelling but being told what to think. One feels trapped with the author, despite his frequent quotations from others.

Inevitably there is Conrad; Theroux reads Heart of Darkness 12 times before reaching Cape Town. There is Flaubert: "Travelling makes me modest - you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world"; and there is Livingstone: "The mere animal pleasure of travelling in a wild unexplored country is very great." There are also quotes from Joyce, Dickens, Nabokov, Hardy and Saki, and references to the great Victorian African travellers, such as Burton, Speke and Edward Lear. Theroux identifies most with Rimbaud and Graham Greene, and perhaps least with Hemingway - "from his shotguns to his mannered prose". Of all the sorts of travel available in Africa, Theroux says, the easiest to find and the most misleading is the Hemingway-style safari experience.

It is all very readable, and sometimes hypnotising, but it left me strangely sad that such a talented writer, the author of such admirable fiction and non-fiction as The Mosquito Coast, Half-Moon Street, The Great Railway Bazaar and The Old Patagonian Express, should have lost his sense of wonder. Instead, he offers everything for the red-blooded armchair traveller in search of the darker side of life: clitoridectomies in the Sudan; the burning heat of Khartoum with its "sky-specks of rotating hawks"; the man-eating hyenas of Harar; shifta attacks on the bandit road in northern Kenya; prostitutes in Nanyuki; pre-election violence in Uganda; a hazardous ferry ride across Lake Victoria; the bush train to Dar es Salaam; Burton's investigations of the Wagogo's sexual habits in old Tanganyika ("questioning the women, measuring the men"); the Kilimanjaro Express to M'beya (half of the African passengers were refugees); sex-for-food parcels in Malawi, the eighth poorest country in the world; a dug-out canoe safari down the Shire river in Mozambique and across the mighty Limpopo river into South Africa, where "almost everything worked, even the political system". Finally, he boards an express train in comparative luxury across the boundless Karoo to Cape Town.

"Africa is materially more decrepit than it was when I first knew it," Theroux writes, "hungrier, poorer, less educated, more pessimistic, more corrupt, and you can't tell the politicians from the witch-doctors... Not that Africa is one place. It is an assortment of motley republics and seedy chiefdoms. I got sick, I got stranded but I was never bored." This much one can say for Dark Star Safari without fear of contradiction: it is never boring.

Christopher Ondaatje is on the council of the Royal Geographical Society and is the author of books on Africa.

Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town

Author - Paul Theroux
ISBN - 0 241 14048 X
Publisher - Hamish Hamilton
Price - £17.99
Pages - 495

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