August 7, 2003 - Hatfield Valley Advocate: Malawi RPCV Paul Theroux returns to Africa for a trip down the length of the continent

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Malawi RPCV Paul Theroux returns to Africa for a trip down the length of the continent

Malawi RPCV Paul Theroux returns to Africa for a trip down the length of the continent

On the Road Again

Writer Paul Theroux returns to Africa for a trip down the length of the continent

by John Adamian - August 7, 2003
Dark Star Safari
472 pages (Houghton Mifflin)

Paul Theroux has made a career of travelling. In addition to his more than 20 fiction titles, he is the author of more than a dozen books of nonfiction chronicling his travels through China, India, Latin America, Great Britain and the Mediterranean. Theroux's new book, Dark Star Safari , recounts his return journey to Africa (what he calls "the greenest continent"), where he lived during the 1960s, working in the Peace Corps in Malawi and later as an English teacher in Uganda.

As someone who's obviously logged his years chugging along on steamy, overcrowded and rickety trains, bouncing on barely extant desert roads and winding his way through teeming cities, Theroux knows that travel is about the getting there, not what you do once you arrive. Journey over destination.

"To me, travel was not about rest and relaxation," he writes. "It was action, exertion, motion, and the built-in delays were longueurs necessitated by the inevitable problem-solving of forward movement: waiting for buses and trains, enduring breakdowns that you tried to make the best of."

But travel in Africa poses particular problems. As Theroux sets out on his journey he recounts the list of countries that acquaintances warn him to avoid -- basically the entire continent -- for one reason or another.

With the United Nations preparing to send peace-keeping forces to Liberia, hundreds of thousands of refugees on the move in civil-war-torn Angola, fighting between Christians and Muslims in Sudan, land-seizures in Zimbabwe, AIDS in South Africa and elsewhere, Africa is in desperate need of help. Theroux isn't so sure, however, that Western-style aid is the solution. He writes: "Name an African problem and an agency or a charity existed to deal with it. But that did not mean a solution was produced. Charities and aid programs seemed to turn African problems into permanent conditions that were bigger and messier." He characterizes the organized good will toward Africans as a money-making scheme for some careerist aid-workers, though he admits there are selfless do-gooders, too: "[T]his was the era of charity in Africa, where the business of philanthropy was paramount."

Theroux mostly dispenses with the idea of charity -- leaving that to the pious Muslims he sees giving alms to the poor lining the entrance to a mosque.

Theroux pays special, sympathetic attention to the world of the cabbies, hotel clerks, tour guides and other workers who live off the tourist industry -- even if he bristles at the occasional overzealous attempt to win a tip or to arrange a rendezvous with a prostitute for him. (Conversely, he nearly gets struck in the head by a rock hurled into his train compartment after he brushes off a young beggar in South Africa.) As he kills days in Cairo waiting for a visa to Sudan, Theroux recounts his extended haggling sessions with taxi drivers, and he strikes up a funny conversation about American nudist colonies with an embassy worker.

On the not-funny side, he gets into a discussion of the practice of clitorectomies with an Egyptian man on his long-postponed flight to Khartoum. He enters into conversation with a Spanish-speaking herb saleswoman at a market in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. He talks of poetry with a Maltese nun in Harar. On the road in no man's land in Kenya, Theroux worries that the notorious local bandits will value his cheap Syrian sandals more than his life.

While his sympathy for (and willingness to lend an ear to) the locals may be admirable, Theroux cultivates considerable contempt for his fellow travelers -- a tone that can at times sound downright mean-spirited. On a scenic trip down river on the Nile to the see the ruins at Luxor with about 100 other travelers, Theroux lays into the tourists with a toxic condescension and scorn that seem almost hypocritical considering that, at that moment, he's not doing anything much different from them. He describes his fellow passengers as "mainly those plump, rich, amphibious-looking people for whom travel is an expensive kind of laziness, spent in the company of other idle people to whom they relate details of their previous trips."

Even after signaling a more magnanimous approach, Theroux proceeds to ridicule: "I resisted mocking [the other tourists] because they were harmless and most were committed to geniality." But, evidently thinking better of sparing anyone, he offers further jabs such as one about a "hard-faced woman and her bosomy husband, each seemingly midway through a sex change." If that's Theroux using kid gloves, I'd hate to be at the receiving end of his intentional barbs. No one ever said a good writer has to be nice, but Theroux's skillful gibes occur so often at times that the reader -- who is, after all, merely sitting back and lazily reading about Theroux's exploits -- grows weary of the attacks.

If he's not particularly charitable to his Western contemporaries, Theroux finds comfort in the company of other writers who have traveled the same routes before. He lends his narrative a broad historical and literary sweep by frequently citing the writings of Gustave Flaubert, Mark Twain and Joseph Conrad. (He announces that he re-read The Heart of Darkness 12 times on the trip.) After recounting a bit about Flaubert's famously documented copulations with an Egyptian dancer-prostitute, Theroux declares the Frenchman to be the guiding spirit on his travels -- Virgil to his Dante. Elsewhere, he cites Montaigne's writings on cannibals and barbarism. In Harar, Ethiopia, he stops to visit one of the houses purported to be a former home of French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who disappeared from the literary spotlight and became a trader in East Africa. He also meets up with living writers like the aging Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, and South African Nadine Gordimer. Back in Uganda, Theroux psychologizes about the writing of his one-time friend and mentor V. S. Naipaul, basically calling him a racist coward.

Theroux's writing is thick with piled-on detail in places. Here's a typical, evocative, verb-free, listy sentence: "Date palms in clusters, orange trees, low boxy houses, donkey carts piled high with tomatoes, the occasional camel, men in white gowns and skullcaps."

Theroux vacillates on the results of his return trip to Africa. Looking back on the journey, he says that, in many respects, Africa is worse off today than it was when he lived there 40 years ago: "Africa is materially more decrepit than it was when I first knew it -- hungrier, poorer, less educated, more pessimistic, more corrupt, and you can't tell the politicians from the witch doctors."

On the other hand, Theroux reveals his belief that the destitute villagers he encounters in the Nubian desert would be better off without any interference from the outside. When a man asks Theroux to tell President Bush that the village needs a pump to draw water from a deep old well, the writer doubts it, pointing to the difficulty of providing help in such a vast and poor region: "No, I don't think so: a pump would need gasoline, spare parts, regular maintenance. Ultimately the contraption would fail them. They were better off hauling water the ancient way."

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Story Source: Hatfield Valley Advocate

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Malawi; Writing- Malawi



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