After hopping on cattle trucks, 100-year-old trains, and dugout canoes, after dodging bullets and the temptations of prostitutes, Paul Theroux closes his latest travelogue with a weird coda: “The kindest Africans had not changed at all, and even after all these years the best of them are bare-assed.”
A celebrated writer of 11 previous travel books (and 24 novels), Theroux journeys overland from Egypt to South Africa—no airplanes, no hired guides, just a man, his thumb, and his notebook. It has been some 40 years since he visited the haunts of his happy youth as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi. The ’60s were heady times in East Africa: revolution, independence, the ouster of colonialism. But today’s headlines report only horrors: AIDS, famine, pestilence, genocide. This is not the green continent he fondly recalls. Oddly, it hardly matters, for adversity is what he’s after. His 60th birthday looms and what better celebration than this “adventure in rejuvenation”? It strikes the reader as odd, too, that Theroux finds it rejuvenating rather than soul-destroying to trek through cities not “fit for human habitation.” But then, Theroux fancies himself a modern-day Sir Richard Francis Burton honing his instinct for survival. Traveling for him means not making plans, accepting the accidental, shooing away beggars. A self-styled poster boy for “geezer power” (“Years are not an affliction. Old age is strength.”), Theroux insists that he is not a mzee, an old man, but in much of Africa, where the mortality rate rises sharply after 40, he has the Darwinian upper hand.
With Rimbaud, Flaubert, and Conrad as his Virgils, bolstered by his sense of himself as “a dusty notetaking fugitive” Theroux Rip Van Winkles himself to a place where “things fell apart” (per Achebe), a land “full of predators,” “a dark star.” The latter phrase appears throughout the book, reminding the reader that Theroux feels himself a stranger in a strange land, a wanderer intent on adventure who compulsively pats himself on the back for spurning international airports and big-game parks.
Spurning e-mail, cell phones, and fax machines, Theroux maintains only one connection to his home life in Hawaii—a shortwave radio, which brings news of financial crisis on Wall Street as he waits for visas to be granted, tires to be fixed. Fortunately, his scribble pad is always at the ready. Each delay affords him a new opportunity to strike up a conversation, and Theroux uses his gift of gab to collect memorable stories: the tale of the Ethiopian prisoner who translated the only book in the jail—Gone With the Wind—onto cigarette foil to preserve his sanity (and later published his efforts); the one about the Tanzanian engineer whose cargo ship once carried Idi Amin’s soldiers across Lake Victoria, and who today is one of a handful of people who know every crag and rock in the 27,000-square-mile body of mostly uncharted water. Theroux records snide cocktail banter in which expats dismiss nearly every nation in Africa with the sniff of a nose. And he offers potted histories of some of the colorful leaders who’ve left their mark on the countries he visits: Julius Nyerere, the former president of Tanzania, who advocated rural development through communal work; Haile Selassie, the charismatic leader of Ethiopia and unwitting inspiration for Rastafarianism.
Theroux sharply criticizes tourists (“The Nile cruise passenger is someone in the process of becoming a licensed bore”) and foreign aid workers, “oafish self-dramatizing prigs” who rely on “hunger porn” to prop up their inflated sense of themselves. The mass migration of rural people to cities stripped the bush of its self-sufficiency with the promise of golden paychecks and cast many into profound poverty. He looks to rural Africa for a solution—subsistence farming—the original goal of Nyerere and others. “That was my Malawi epiphany,” he trumpets. “Only Africans are capable of making a difference in Africa.” Not a terribly original epiphany, but his critique of the failure of foreign aid programs is spot on. Another epiphany comes to Theroux while fretting over the risk of being shot by highway robbers if he takes a certain route. A friend wisely tells him, “They do not want your life, bwana. They want your shoes.”
Theroux is neither war correspondent nor historian nor native African. His prose doesn’t have the heart-thumping speed of Michaela Wrong’s In the Footsteps of Mister Kurtz or the insightful gems that spill from Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, nor does it carry the weight of an insider’s critique that is woven into novels by Ousmane Sembene or Zakes Mda. He’s just a man from the Cape—Cape Cod, where he summers—who throws himself into hardship to see what it stirs up inside him. Some of the best writing in Dark Star comes from other writers (a particularly juicy passage by Joyce describing the stench of humanity comes to mind), which simply shows up Theroux’s missed opportunities to lavish attention upon his words. When describing what he remembers most about Egypt—the colors—we get, “The sky was cloudless and blue, the land baked the color of biscuits . . . ” Scattered throughout are Theroux’s embarrassing erotic fantasies—women veiled from head to toe, unshowered nuns sharing a bed. (He escapes from his escape by writing a story about a younger man having an affair with an older woman in Sicily, of which one brief excerpt slips in: “I drank and touched her hand and was surprised by the warmth of the lace . . . “)
Theroux clearly loves Africa and Africans—he tells the reader as much many times. So a line that says the kindest of Africans are bare-assed wrinkles the brow. Does he mean that the poor are his friends—that even though the West abandoned Africa, kindess still trickles forth? Is it an attempt at humor gone awry? It is troubling, again, that he goes on to say, “What I loved most about Africa was that it seemed unfinished . . . lying mostly mute.” The slippages (there are others) stand out all the more coming from the man whose celebrated dustup with his mentor, V.S. Naipaul, included his charging the elder with racism?
Like an old-fashioned khaki-clad colonialist, Theroux seems to cherish Africa as a screen upon which to project his fantasies. Bound and gagged by economic deprivation, sweltering in a purgatory of AIDS and famine, Theroux’s muted Africa exists for those Westerners who fancy themselves explorers, “discovering” places off their maps, tut-tutting at the shame of its desperation.