In previous books, now classics of travel writing, Paul Theroux described his long train journeys through India and Russia, South America, and China; his ramblings around England and the Mediterranean; his paddling through Oceania.  More interested in people and landscape than in history and art, Theroux combines description and interpretation with social criticism and political commentary.  He prefers a rough to a comfortable journey, popular to high culture, colloquial to mandarin style.  He is engagingly frank about backward and brutal people, boring voyages, and self-created torments and believes the great traveler must also be a great masochist.  Theroux would agree with D.H. Lawrence that “travel seems to me a splendid lesson in disillusion.”

Cecil Rhodes had once planned to link the ends of Africa with a Cape-to-Cairo railroad, which was never completed.  A century later, Theroux has followed this route and described it in his book.  He traveled from Cairo by boat, bus, and cattle truck, and from Nairobi by rail, Lake Victoria steamer, and dug-out canoe on the Zambezi south to Cape-town.  

Theroux’s journey took him down the east side of the continent, through Egypt, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa.  He talked to Nobel Prize-winners Naguib Mahfouz in Cairo and Nadine Gordimer in Johannesburg—but did not get much out of them.  The cities, until the very end of the trip, blurred into a grim similarity:

traffic-clogged Cairo, overheated Khartoum, crumbling tin-roofed Addis, crime-ridden Nairobi, disorderly Kampala, demoralized Dar es Salaam, ragged Lilongwe, desperate Blantyre, and battle-scarred and bombed-out Beira.

But Theroux carefully distinguishes among the ten countries.  In Egypt, he saw the almost buried-in-the-sand temples that afforded a close-up view of the tops of the huge, sculpted capitals and interior ceilings.  The Sudan offered the motley-dressed spinning and wheeling dervishes; the birds, ruins, and oases in the bright, unpeopled desert; the tall, dark, hawk-nosed great-grandson of the Mahdi who had beheaded General Gordon; and the “good,” warm-hearted Muslims who have been waging a genocidal war against the pagans in the south for the last 30 years.  In Ethiopia, kites swept down on Theroux and grazed his scalp with their talons, while packs of predatory hyenas prowled the streets and tore camel meat—the hump as smooth and white as cheese—from human hands during ritualistic feedings.

Uganda, where crocodiles ate 43 fishermen within six months, “seemed a tidier, better-governed place than Kenya,” which has had a thoroughly rotten government since independence.  Tanzania was also in precipitous decay— “more people, grubbier buildings, more litter, fewer trees, more poachers, less game” than before.  Even the once-exotic Zanzibar, suffused with the fragrance of cloves, “was an island of smelly alleys and sulky Muslims.”  In Malawi—land of prostrate forests, dusty roads, and thriving coffin-makers for AIDS victims—the handsome school he had taught in as a Peace Corps volunteer “was almost unrecognizable . . . a compound of battered buildings in a muddy open field.”  The seed he had sown had never sprouted and was now decayed and moribund.

Mozambique, once a Portuguese colony, “was not a country in decline—this part of it, anyway, could not fall any farther.”  Maputo (the old Lourenço Marques), “much praised as a desirable destination, was a dreary, beat-up city of desperate people.”  Zimbabwe had a “fearsome reputation for political mayhem” and “was growing worse: dangerous, disrupted, dispirited” (now, after the expropriation of white farms, even more disastrous than when he was there).  In South Africa, which had “fifty-five murders a day, a rape every twenty-three seconds,” almost everything (including crime) worked better than in the rest of Africa.  Theroux made a modest contribution to the crime statistics when all his valuables were stolen from the padlocked strong room in his Johannesburg hotel.

Theroux is an ideal guide through Africa.  He lived in what is now Malawi and in Uganda in the 1960’s, and he speaks Swahili.  He has read the 19th-century explorers: Burton and Speke, Stanley and Livingstone, as well as Flaubert, Rimbaud, and Conrad.  Curious and observant, patient and sympathetic, tolerant and tough, he is also—“by avoiding predators . . . staying alert, and not going out at night”—very lucky.  Contented with very little, he endures, even enjoys, hardship.  Gentler than in his previous books, he tells us about the roads and transport, food and weather, landscape and wild-life.  He maintains a nice balance between historical background, informative encounters, and ugly incidents.

Theroux particularly dislikes the all-too-comfortable foreign-aid workers and the cocooned, pampered safari tourists, both of whom have an unrealistic, self-serving, and ultimately useless view of Africa.  He concedes that aid workers do some good but believes (perhaps too harshly) that 

only Africans were capable of making a difference in Africa.  Everyone else, donors and volunteers and bankers, however idealistic, were simply agents of subversion. . . . They were no more than a maintenance crew on a power trip, who had turned Malawians into beggars and whiners, and development into a study in futility.

Theroux contrasts the luxurious animal-watching, even animal-hunting safaris, with his own desperate struggles with “fungal infections, petty extortion, mocking lepers, dreary bedrooms, bad food, exploding bowels, fleeing animals, rotting schoolrooms, meaningless delays, and blunt threats.”  The traveling masochist evokes both pity and terror for what he has suffered.  At the end of his arduous journey, however, he, too, like a teetotaler who has succumbed to drink, treats himself to a well-earned animal safari and spends a pleasant week at a game reserve near Kruger National Park, peering at wild creatures.

His familiar, engaging style is laced with subtly effective allusions to the Bible, Pliny, and Shakespeare; Shelley, Poe, and Twain; Wilde, Yeats, and Joyce.  His descriptions range from the horrific (“most trains in Africa look as if they are on their way to Auschwitz”) to the lyrical (“bolts of lightning exploded inside the dark clouds, illuminating them for a few seconds, making them seem blacker” and the mysterious “trotting sound, not one animal but lots of tiny hooves, like a multitude of gazelle fawns” that signaled the coming of the rain).  In this book, Theroux triumphantly realizes his ideal of successfully recreating in prose “the texture and emotions of a real place.”

Theroux’s great theme, and the impulse that drove him southward, is the search for his own youthful idealism and personal history, the desire to discover “what happened to Africa while I had been elsewhere.”  The news is bad and matches Ryszard Kapuscinski’s dire conclusions in his book on Africa, The Shadow of the Sun (2001).  Theroux finds thieves beaten to death by rampaging mobs; tortures and executions (mock and real); “ineradicable miseries: famine, displacement, poverty, AIDS, the ravages of war
. . . starving people in a blighted land governed by tyrants, rumors of unspeakable atrocities, despair and darkness.”  After four decades of independence, Africa has “a lower standard of living, a higher rate of illiteracy, overpopulation, and much more disease.”  The Africa that Ther-oux had known (and that I, too, knew when I spent two hopeful summers there in the 1960’s) “had disappeared, had become anarchic and violent.”

Dark Star Safari belongs with the best, and often grimmest, modern travel books on Africa: Evelyn Waugh’s Remote People (1931); Ernest Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa (1934); Shiva Naipaul’s North of South (1978); and V.S. Naipaul’s Finding the Centre (1984).  Theroux’s attitude is more positive than Arthur Rimbaud’s famous lamentation, when he worked as a trader in Harar, Abyssinia, in 1888:

It’s a wretched life anyway, don’t you think—no family, no intellectual activity, lost among negroes who try to exploit you and make it impossible to settle business quickly?  Forced to speak their gibberish, to eat their filthy food and suffer a thousand aggravations caused by their idleness, treachery and stupidity!

Theroux’s lively yet dispiriting book shows—despite improvements in education, medicine, and transportation—that conditions have not changed all that much for the independent traveler in the last 115 years.


[Dark Star Safari: Overland From Cairo to Capetown, by Paul Theroux (Boston: Houghton Mifflin) 496 pp., $28.00]