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Malawi RPCV Paul Theroux at his cranky best returns to Malawi

Malawi RPCV Paul Theroux at his cranky best returns to Malawi

Theroux at his cranky best

March 2, 2003

By Jack Schnedler

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Self-parody is an exquisite literary device--the more so for being almost always unintentional. It also can be seen as a badge of surpassing success, because the inadvertent mimicking will be evident to readers only if the author has a widely appreciated reputation.

So we have Paul Theroux, the most famous living travel writer since he chugged into print with The Great Railway Bazaar in 1975, on the road yet again for a journey that spans an entire continent as well as his 60th birthday.

Theroux brands his Dark Star Safari: Overland From Cairo to Cape Town as "my safari-as-struggle, including public transport, fungal infections, petty extortion, mocking lepers, dreary bedrooms, bad food, exploding bowels, fleeing animals, rotting schoolrooms, meaningless delays and blunt threats: 'There are bad people there' and 'Give me money!'"

This genuine and meaningful odyssey, by his assertion, stands in exemplary counterpoint to "the tidier, deep-pockets-in-the-safari-suit, small-bore-in-Africa safari, the romancers' one of deluxe howdahs on elephant expeditions in the Okavango, picnic hampers in Amboseli ('Pass The Gentlemen's Relish, Nigel'), and luxurious tents in Masai Mara Reserve and the Serengeti. It was the 'Yes, bwana' Africa of escapists and honeymooners and so-called 'consumer travelers' in designer khaki. This Africa, in which Hemingway's gun bearers had morphed into Jeeves-like butlers and game spotters, was available to anyone who, like Ernie, had lots of money and no interest in Africans."

Theroux-slighters may well grumble, "There he goes again!" But faithful readers can approach Dark Star Safari with full confidence that this cranky connoisseur of travel's travails retains his formidable powers of spleen-venting even as a senior citizen. After his dozen previous travel books, patches of self-parody do lurk along the way.

But this new travelogue--a label he would despise and renounce--is perhaps his most captivating work of peregrination since The Great Railway Bazaar.

In the last Theroux travel tome based on a single journey, The Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean, published in 1995, his highly honed disdain led to expanses of tedium. His prose seemed to be idling in locations that stupefied him, rather like one of his perennial ripe targets, well-heeled American tourists--"those plump, rich, amphibious-looking people for whom travel is an expensive kind of laziness" (as the new book puts it).

Infusing Dark Star Safari, by stimulating contrast, is the righteous indignation of an engaged traveler who cares deeply about Africa--the continent where he worked in the Peace Corps four decades ago. Wedded with Theroux's knack of drawing out the most from people he meets along the way, plus his unblinking eye for telling details, this passion gives the book a compelling drive. At the same time, the author's advancing years tint it with wistful reflection.

The melancholy heart of Dark Star resides in the decrepit East African nation of Malawi, where Theroux did his Peace Corps service from 1963 to 1965. There, two-thirds of the way through the book, he aims "to reinsert myself in the bundu, as we used to call the bush, and to wander the antique hinterland."

What he actually finds at his long-ago bailiwick of Soche Hill School is wrenching. The library, once a bustling facility, "was in almost total darkness. One light burned. Nearly all the shelves were empty. The light fixtures were empty, too." He asks what happened to the books. The answer: Students stole them.

Leaving the library, Theroux feels "as though I were emerging from a dark hole of ignorance and plunder." It is personal evidence for a general conclusion he draws: "After a spell of being familiar and promising, Africa had slipped into a stereotype of itself: starving people in a blighted land governed by tyrants, rumors of unspeakable atrocities, despair and darkness."

It's not actually darkness, he adds, "but a blankness so blank and so distant you could ascribe almost anything to it--banditry, anarchy, cannibalism, rebellion, massacre, starvation, violence, disease, division.

"No one could dispute what you said. In fact, the existing literature, the news and the documentation seemed to support the notion that it was all a savage jungle."

Theroux's closest brush with death comes earlier in arid far northern Kenya, where the cattle truck in which he is hitchhiking gets attacked by rifle-brandishing bandits known as shifta. The truck's driver astutely accelerates on the rocky terrain to speed beyond the range of the gunmen.

Afterwards, "The soldier clinging to the bars beside me on our truck shook his head and laughed.

"I said, 'Shifta?'

"'Yah.' He smiled at my grim face.

"I said, 'Sitaki kufa.' I don't want to die.

"He said in English, 'They do not want your life, bwana. They want your shoes.' "

Theroux marks that as an epiphany: "Many times after that, in my meandering through Africa, I mumbled these words, an epitaph of underdevelopment, desperation in a single sentence. What use is your life to them? It is nothing. But your shoes-- ah, they are a different matter. ...

These were men who needed footwear, for they were forever walking."

Traversing the continent aboard mainly ramshackle trains, buses, jitneys, trucks and a ferry across Lake Victoria, the author sets down another epiphany: "the realization that where the mode of life had changed significantly in the Africa I had known, it had changed for the worse."

And he has changed for the older. Having viewed the dereliction of his former Malawi school, he ruminates: "I was a specter, too: a wraith from the past, knocking on broken windows with my bony fingers, pressing my skull against the glass and looking death's head toothy, and saying, Remember me?"

Theroux swears his Africa trip "was a delight and a revelation." He shares a passage from the journey's diary, written in Uganda: "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."

By the end of Dark Star Safari, some readers may wonder if this upbeat passage represents self-deception. A more clear-eyed moment comes when he leaves the Lake Victoria ferry and its congenial Tanzanian crew: "'Kwaheri, mzee!' they called out as I stepped off the loading flap onto Tanzanian soil.

"Farewell, old man."

Jack Schnedler, deputy managing editor/features at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was travel editor of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1982 to 1994.




Houghton Mifflin. $28.

When this story was posted in October 2004, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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RPCV Carl Pope says the key to winning this election is not swaying undecided voters, but persuading those already willing to vote for your candidate to actually go to the polls.

Take our poll and tell us what you are doing to support your candidate.

Finally read our wrap-up of the eight RPCVs in Senate and House races around the country and where the candidates are in their races.

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Story Source: Chicago Sun Times

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Malawi; Writing - Malawi; Return to our Country of Service - Malawi



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