Dark Star Safari

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 281

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...

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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

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1849

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 community to Ethiopia and sought to care for them. Theroux meets one of the Ethiopian Rastafarian community’s leaders, Gladstone Robinson, a man in his sixties, who had left the United States for Ethiopia in 1964, fled during the Mengistu regime, and then returned after its overthrow in 1991, though his daughter, a New York policewoman, remains in the United States. Theroux also has an intriguing and moving encounter with Sister Alexandra, a Maltese nun who left her fiancé for a religious vocation. When the former fiancé dies, the woman he had married telephones Sister Alexandra, thanking her both for loving the woman’s husband and for not interfering in their marriage. Theroux, who usually renders his own portrait as gruff and abrasive, here permits his sensitive side to show through.

As always in his travel books, Theroux is adept at juggling information and narrative. Without relinquishing readability or narrative swing, he maintains a precise and self-conscious mastery of the subject he is covering, along with a particular angle through which he knowingly conveys his subject to the reader. In the sections on Sudan and Ethiopia, for instance, Theroux is aware of the area’s complicated history, particularly by the way northeast Africa has been in some ways so isolated from the West, in other ways so linked to it by the Bible, which mentions Nubian and Ethiopian peoples.

Theroux laments the deterioration and corruption in Kenya (since leavened by the democratic election of Mwai Kibaki in 2003). He meets two young British aid workers, Rachel and Fiona, who do not impress him. They seem more like latter-day versions of busybody Victorian philanthropists than people who genuinely can help Africans improve their lives. While certainly sharing the ideals of the charity organizations that work in Africa, Theroux wonders if their practical effect might be more deleterious than helpful. He wonders whether international aid groups and nongovernmental organizations are only a way for the youth of rich countries to spend a few years salving their social consciences. In Uganda, he has more direct contact with the power structure, as Apolo Nsibambi, an old friend from Theroux’s days as a teacher at Makerere University in Kampala in the late 1960’s, is now the country’s prime minister. Nsibambi promises that a multiparty system will someday be installed in what, for the past two decades, has been an efficiently run if still overly centralized country. Theroux remarks ironically that China had once been seen as a role model for Uganda because of its collectivization of the peasants; now it is seen as the same for its pursuit of capitalism and gleaming high technology.

In Tanzania, Theroux surveys the damage left by the economic legacy of Julius Nyerere, termed “Mwalimu,” whose collectivist mentality still inhibits economic growth and contributes to a lackadaisical quality in daily life. In places such as Arusha and Dodoma, though, Theroux meets a lively mix of people who show how culture and life continue, even amid economic stress. His journey to Malawi, the next country south, is, like the earlier visit to Uganda, highly meaningful in a personal sense to Theroux because he had taught there as a member of the Peace Corps in his youth in the 1960’s. Any sense of the prodigal’s triumphal return, though, is muted when the American Embassy in the capital of Lilongwe shows no interest in having Theroux lecture there. Later, the ambassador himself is also cold. Theroux reencounters David Rubadiri, former headmaster of Soche School and now the head of the University of Malawi. David Rubabidi pleads with Theroux to send his two sons, both of whom had established successful publishing and media careers of their own, to work in Malawi. Theroux points out that Rubadiri’s own children have mostly left Africa and are making money in the richer countries of the West. How much more helpful, Theroux implies, would it be if Malawians worked to revive their own country, instead of simply depending on the kindness of foreigners?

Theroux concludes his dark star safari with visits to two countries formerly ruled by white minorities: Zimbabwe and South Africa. In the former, a corrupt government has ruined the economy by a politically inspired land grab that exploited racial divisions. Theroux’s portrait of Chenjerai “Hitler” Hunzvi, a thuggish ruffian himself dying of the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) epidemic that has so ravaged the entire nation and region, is particularly scalding. In South Africa, the situation is far more encouraging. People from abroad have actually come there to settle, such as a Lithuanian man named Edward. The relative luxury of South Africa permits pleasures, such as eating ostrich carpaccio, unavailable in impoverished countries. There is also a thriving literary scene, personified by Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer, who welcomes Theroux to her home.

This spotlights a slight shortcoming in Dark Star Safari. Though Theroux does meet with Gordimer and Mahfouz, the books he brings with him are by Europeans or Americans—Gustave Flaubert, Joseph Conrad, Graham Robb, Philip Gourevitch—whereas there are Africans who have written about these areas—Meja Mwangi from Kenya, Nuruddin Farah from the Horn of Africa, Mia Couto from Mozambique, Yvonne Vera from Zimbabwe—whom he does not read. Given that one of the themes of the book is that Africa is best helped by Africans, rather than by well-meaning but disruptive and hypocritical Europeans, the omission of any mention of contemporary African writing is striking. Theroux does meet a novelist in Kenya, Wahome Mutahi, but Mutahi’s experience as a political prisoner is emphasized over his role as a writer.

The sheer panoply of Theroux’s arduous trip from Cairo to the Cape is so rich that it makes up for these possible flaws. Many writers talk about globalization; Theroux has lived it. Of all living American writers, he is the one who might be able to say, as the late James A. Michener said in the title of his autobiography, The World Is My Home. If Africa is ever again seen as a seedbed of promise, this book, along with Theroux’s other African writings, will be hailed for sustaining the idea of Africa as a place worth caring about, even through the bleakest years.

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.

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