Wednesday, December 31, 2003  
 Clubs TonightHot TixBand GuideMP3sBest Music PollSki GuideThe Best '03 
 Literary Calendar | Authors in Town | By Location | Hot Links |  
Editors' Picks
New This Week
News and Features

Food & Drink


Stuff at Night
The Providence Phoenix
The Portland Phoenix
FNX Radio Network

  E-Mail This Article to a Friend

Dark countenance
Paul Theroux’s Africa trip
Dark Star Safari
By Paul Theroux. Houghton Mifflin, 472 pages, $28.

Deep into Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux is traveling down the Zambezi River in a dugout canoe, and he’s stopped to camp for the night:

"Since we were going to sleep in the open, the only question I had in my mind was whether there were hyenas in the area. Hyenas root among rubbish, and though they stay out of huts, they have been known to nibble human feet protruding from hut doors, and in some instances to chew the face of the person sleeping nearest the entrance.

Palibe mafisi,’ Wilson said. No hyenas. But I wanted to hear it from a villager, so when the woman came back with the washed plates, I asked her. I liked her reply, which sounded poetic.

‘No hyenas, lots of ghosts.’ "(341)

Her words are an apt description of Theroux’s entire enterprise. There are no hyenas — that is, there are few tangible threats to personal safety beyond the misery that’s considered endemic to any journey overland from Cairo to Cape Town costing several thousand dollars. There are no hyenas, but ghosts rattle on every page.

As he sets out from Cairo with a volume of Herodotos on his latest travelogue, it is clear where Theroux places himself in the pantheon of literary travelers. Along for the trek are Livingstone and Conrad, those original chroniclers of the Dark Continent. He romantically recalls Flaubert in Esna, the Nile city of prostitutes, and the young genius Rimbaud throwing off Paris to become a merchant in Harar. Theroux wishes to imitate Rimbaud, to set out in rebellion against the comfort of a writer’s life. Of course, he’s his own antecedent. He has gone to Africa to meet the ghost of his younger self. History haunts the thing. Observing in a Khartoum market that travel "gives access to the past," he smirks at ruins and rejects the gloomy present of headlines.

We are reminded at the outset that safari is merely the Swahili word for "journey," and so we abolish all expectations of pith helmets and game hunting. Theroux sets out to vanquish other beasts. At the start of his voyage, diplomats gathered for cocktails in Cairo deluge him with warnings. He is told that Zambia is "a mess," Ethiopia is fighting Eritrea, Kenya is corrupt, and Tanzania has no roads. Horrifics abound in Congo, Rwanda, Somalia, and Zimbabwe. Frustrated with the notion of Africa as the ancient and unchanging "place of darkness," Theroux wishes to uncover the true problem of the continent.

But despite a breathtaking itinerary through Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and South Africa, the trip is a bit rehearsed. Revisiting the paths of historical travelers, Theroux also retraces his own steps as an earnest Peace Corp teacher in Uganda and Malawi. Taking inspiration from Lonely Planet, he haggles over the price of silver, luxuriates in gritty lodging, and shudders through harrowing bus journeys and border crossings. He is unmoved at the sight of the Sphinx, calls African cities "miserable improvised anthills," and refers to locals by the all-encompassing designation African, with little attention to nation or tribe. He is especially vexed with fellow foreigners and the hateful aid workers who race about in white Land Rovers. He relishes encounters with young escapists who carry his own books.

This seasoned wanderer seems weary, so as much as he wants to discover something new about Africa, the search is muddled by preconceptions. Our opinionated guide had made up his mind long before setting out. But earnest concern often pierces his weathered and curmudgeonly façade. Deep contempt for the absurdities and injustices of modern Africa is mixed with love and admiration. And though he may be ever watchful for hyenas and ghosts, the real specter is that of his own mortality, not from any variety of violent death meted out on the continent but from bourgeois old age. In his diary he records reconciliation: "I do not want to be young again. I am happy being what I am. This contentment is very helpful on a trip as long and difficult as this."

Theroux is also thin-skinned when mocked by locals who call him what he is: faranji, bwana, muzungu. White man. Foreigner. He wishes to be seen by the "Africans" as he regards himself. But how else could they see this rich, aging visitor escaping to their home continent for a bit of danger and excitement? History records that upon first encounter, coastal peoples mistook the European strangers as good beacons from beyond, ancestral ghosts. They have been paying for it ever since.

Issue Date: July 18 - 24, 2003
Back to the Books table of contents
  E-Mail This Article to a Friend

about the phoenix |  find the phoenix |  advertising info |  privacy policy |  the masthead |  feedback |  work for us

 © 2000 - 2003 Phoenix Media Communications Group