Dark Star Safari

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town, Paul Theroux travels solo from Egypt to South Africa in search of the continent he left behind when he returned from teaching English for the Peace Corps in Malawi and Uganda. His recollections of Africa were of proud, diverse people; of cultures rich in heritage and tradition; of countries just on the brink of independence from European colonialism. He wanted to return to learn what had happened when Africa became free.

Theroux is a curmudgeon, a brave traveler and a skeptic, honestly offering readers portraits of cruel post-colonial tyranny, heartbreaking poverty, and desperate hopelessness. For anyone wanting an unfiltered picture of early twenty-first century Africa, Theroux’s account will be eye-opening. Not only does he detail his own adventures in vivid prose, but he also recounts—often in their own words—the hardships of the Africans whom he meets. The towns, villages, and open lands he passes through from Cairo to Cape Town hardly resemble the places he remembers so fondly. Everywhere he goes he finds devastated villages, hunger, petty dictators, fear, and the threat of violence. Yet despite the depressing realities of this changed Africa, Theroux tells his stories and those of the Africa he explores as a solo traveler with honesty, compassion, and gusto, leaving the reader glad to have shared his journey.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, no. 11 (February 1, 2003): 954-955.

The Boston Globe, April 6, 2003, p. C9.

The Christian Science Monitor, March 20, 2003, p. 20.

Kirkus Reviews 70, no. 24 (December 15, 2002): 1835.

Library Journal 128, no. 1 (January 1, 2003): 140.

Los Angeles Times, April 1, 2003, p. E9.

The Nation 276, no. 12 (March 31, 2003): 40-43.

The New York Times Book Review 152, no. 52501 (June 1, 2003): 21.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 1 (January 6, 2003): 49.

The Washington Post Book World, March 30, 2003, p. 8.

Dark Star Safari

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Paul Theroux is well known as the author of travel books. The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia (1975), about Theroux’s ride on a series of trains across Asia, virtually reinvented the travel book as a genre and paved the way for its considerable viability on the publishing scene of the last part of the twentieth century. He went on to write similar books covering Latin America, China, the Mediterranean region, and Oceania. Until now, though, Africa—the continent where he had begun his wiring career, where he had written and set his first few novels, and of which he has been one of the United States’ most sympathetic and comprehending expositors—had not been the subject of a Theroux travel book.

Because of Theroux’s personal involvement with the continent of Africa (he had spent much of his twenties in Malawi and Uganda), Dark Star Safari is more personal and more emotional than his other travel books, about areas to which he was often coming with no previous expectations. The only place that would, perhaps, be more personal for Theroux to write about would be his own country, the United States—not yet a subject of a Theroux travel book. Many reviewers found his tone darker than in his previous works and saw the dominant motif as a pessimism about the prospects of Africa amid war, famine, disease, and corruption. Much of his concern in this book comes not from pessimism about Africa but from his deep love of the continent and his confidence in its people to find a way out of their present quandaries.

The journey takes place in early 2001. It starts in Egypt, the projected northern terminus for the hypothetical “Cape to Cairo railway” envisaged by the British during their colonial days. This envisioned path is substantially followed by Theroux in the course of the book. He tours the ancient Pharaonic sites and also attends an evening at an Egyptian bar at which Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel laureate, is in conversation with friends and admirers. As an American, Theroux is besieged by questions about presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush as well as the United States’ support for Israel. Made nervous by being assigned responsibility for policies in whose formulation he had no role, Theroux nonetheless realizes that, as an American, he is a natural target for these sorts of responses.

Unlike in previous books, Theroux cannot take trains—or, as in the case of The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific (1992), boats—the entire way. So the chapter titles sometimes are taken from train routes, at other times from the place or area visited. In Sudan, which had recently been bombed by the Clinton administration as punishment for giving sanctuary to followers of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, Theroux’s major encounter is with Sadiq al-Mahdi, great-grandson of the man who defeated the British in the 1890’s, himself a former prime minister of Sudan. Theroux is impressed by Sadiq al-Mahdi’s willingness to listen and to determine a consensus from a variety of opinions. Attributes of a good political leader, these are also qualities that, in a different register, Theroux has himself as an author. One of the pleasures of Dark Star Safari is that it gives the reader not only Theroux’s querulous, idiosyncratic voice but also the voices of so many others, old and young, male and female, European and African.

This willingness to listen brings surprises, as Theroux does not allow his experience of a given country to be prefabricated by expectations. A woman in Ethiopia does not speak English—but she does speak Spanish. Theroux is perplexed because the Spanish had never at all colonized this part of the world. He is enlightened when the woman tells him she learned it from the Cuban troops who were in Ethiopia during the late 1970’s and 1980’s in support of the former Marxist dictatorship of Mengistu Halle Mariam. In Ethiopia, a Christian country and for a long time Africa’s only independent state, Theroux meets many eccentric individuals and groups. For instance, it is well known that the Rastafarians, followers of a Caribbean religion, venerate the late Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie (whose original name was Ras Tafari Makonnen), but few know that there is actually a settlement of Rastafarians in Ethiopia. Although the emperor, more bemused than impressed by those who venerated him, told the Rastafarians that he was a Christian and did not wish to be treated as a god, he nonetheless welcomed the Rastafarian...

(The entire section is 1849 words.)