‘Dark Star Safari’ by Paul Theroux

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Thursday, February 17, 2011 - Save & Share - Leave a Comment

When I started out at university, the people I met instantly divided themselves into two groups: those who started conversations with the immortal phrase, “On my gap year…”  and those who didn’t.  The gap year people had inevitably spent at a goodly proportion of this year out of education travelling in Africa/South America/Asia, had quite probably taken part in some sort of community project which gave them an unparalleled insight into that country and would waste no opportunity to mention this.  Now, I’m sure this was a very fulfilling experience for the people involved, but unless they are incredibly skilled raconteurs (which, lets face it, most people are not, particularly when there is alcohol involved at the time of the telling) it’s really not that interesting to hear about and it usually comes across as a bit self-indulgent and pompous.  Unfortunately, reading Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town by Paul Theroux was exactly like hearing about his gap year.

Dark Star Safari is an account of Paul Theroux’s travels through Africa, shunning easy and convenient travel methods in favour of treacherous trains, dodgy taxis and tiny vans stuffed full of people and their belongings.  Along the way he meets a whole variety of people from different walks of life, some old friends from his previous stay in Africa working for the Peace Corps and some new acquaintances.  There are waiters, prostitutes, diplomats, Indian shopkeepers, white farmers, Rastafarians, ex-convicts and many more, all with a story to tell which become part of Theroux’s own overarching story of his travels.

This book is interesting because of what it is: Theroux’s journey is undeniably ambitious in scope and Dark Star Safari stands as a testament to that.  It was a huge undertaking, accessing such a wide cross section of people from so many places, and the fact that he was able to write the book at all is impressive.  It’s also an area that is entirely new to me and I learnt a great deal from the book.  I had no idea, for example, that there were so many Indians who migrated to various African countries to set up businesses and new lives, and Dark Star Safari is a gold mine of information such as this for the ignorant reader such as myself.  He also presents a perspective on foreign aid (that it is often doing more harm than good) which I hadn’t really considered before,  probably because Africa isn’t something that I read about terrible often, and certainly gave me pause for thought.  My experiences of people travelling through Africa tend to come courtesy of Comic Relief and feature television personalities presenting pitiful sights while asking for my financial aid, so regardless of whether you agree with Theroux’s controversial point of view, it’s definitely interesting to read from the perspective of someone seeing the same sights and instead saying that perhaps aid isn’t helping anyone.

My issues with this book don’t stem from it’s subject matter but from Theroux himself, who I found to be an utterly insufferable narrator.  He is so scathing and dismissive of so many of the people he meets that he frequently comes across as boorish and unpleasant.  He scorns the tourists on the Nile cruise on which he embarks partly because they are on a Nile cruise (the hypocrisy of this seems lost on him) and partly because they have the temerity to ask questions!  How dare people travelling in a foreign country to see historical sights want to learn about things?  What a ridiculous notion!  He is equally derogatory about many of the diplomats he meets (although he does love name dropping), the Christian missionaries towards whom he is deliberately antagonistic, and the foreign aid workers who won’t give him a lift, which seems rather unnecessary.  By all means criticise the aid system, but being provocative towards the individuals who are trying to help and work within a flawed system primarily because they won’t give you a lift (which is hardly part of their job) comes across as whining.  He also seems to have an over-inflated sense of his own importance, being shocked upon his arrival in Malawi to discover that no one at the American embassy has responded to his generous offer to hold a few lectures during his stay there out of the goodness of his own heart (and so he can celebrate his birthday, of course).

I found his sexual references to be totally unnecessary and added nothing to the book.  I appreciate that a lot of the women he meets are prostitutes and that they have some interesting stories to tell, but his self-congratulatory attitude at not taking advantage of them himself I found rather distasteful.  In a similar vein, his sexualising of many of the women he comes across is unpleasant and makes Theroux seem like a bit of a dirty old man (which, at sixty, he kind of is).  His completely irrelevant references to the erotic novel that he is inspired to write as he travels are equally unnecessary and I would have preferred it if this whole aspect of the book had been left out.

His writing is very journalistic in style, which some might enjoy as it feels very factual and efficient.  However, when I read a travelogue, I want it to make me feel as though I’m actually there, not that I’m listening to someone a bit dull but very accurate tell me what it’s like being there.  Every time there is a market it is described as ‘medieval’, and it quickly gets rather old and tired.  There are other times though, when the descriptions are absolutely perfect and evoke wonderful images of these strange countries, such as when he describes Cairo:

The smoke from the fires lit in braziers, the stink of the pissed-on walls, the graffiti, the dust piles, the brick shards, the baked mud, the neighbourhood so decrepit and worn, so pulverized, it looked as though it had been made out of wholewheat flour and baked five thousand years ago and was now turning back into little crumbs.  (pp. 9-10)

Sadly, these flashes of lovely writing come all too infrequently for my liking, and are overshadowed by the way that Theroux himself comes across.  Not a writer I’ll be reading again, I think.

Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town by Paul Theroux.  Published by Penguin, 2003, pp. 495.  Originally published in 2002.

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