As Emerson went on to say, a writer engages despair by writing about it; ''in calamity, he finds new materials.'' With Dark Star Safari, Theroux reports his first trip into the last leg of life's voyage, and sends back a brooding and apocalyptic report. — Rand Richards Cooper
Theroux is best at shorthand dissections of trends that have already become obvious. In no other book will one find such entertaining and penetrating comments about the ironies, as well as the historic failure, of foreign aid. — Robert D. Kaplan
"All news out of Africa is bad. It made me want to go there," Theroux writes in his thirty-eighth book, which describes his yearlong journey from Cairo to Cape Town by creaky train, ferry and rattletrap bus. Back in the 1960s, Theroux worked as a teacher and Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda and Malawi. Recently, the headlines depicting war and famine there awoke in him the desire to return to the continent. "Nothing was new," Theroux writes of Africa, "except that there were many more people, grubbier buildings, more litter, fewer trees, more poachers, less game." By the end of the trip, Theroux seems more concerned with the arrogant aid workers who constantly zoom past him in glistening white Land Rovers, refusing to give him a ride.
"You'll have a terrible time," one diplomat tells Theroux upon discovering the prolific writer's plans to hitch a ride hundreds of miles along a desolate road to Nairobi instead of taking a plane. "You'll have some great stuff for your book." That seems to be the strategy for Theroux's extended "experience of vanishing" into the African continent, where disparate incidents reveal Theroux as well as the people he meets. At times, he goes out of his way to satisfy some perverse curmudgeonly desire to pick theological disputes with Christian missionaries. But his encounters with the natives, aid workers and occasional tourists make for rollicking entertainment, even as they offer a sobering look at the social and political chaos in which much of Africa finds itself. Theroux occasionally strays into theorizing about the underlying causes for the conditions he finds, but his cogent insights are well integrated. He doesn't shy away from the literary aspects of his tale, either, frequently invoking Conrad and Rimbaud, and dropping in at the homes of Naguib Mahfouz and Nadine Gordimer at the beginning and end of his trip. He also returns to many of the places where he lived and worked as a Peace Corps volunteer and teacher in the 1960s, locations that have cropped up in earlier novels. These visits fuel the book's ongoing obsession with his approaching 60th birthday and his insistence that he isn't old yet. As a travel guide, Theroux can both rankle and beguile, but after reading this marvelous report, readers will probably agree with the priest who observes, "Wonderful people. Terrible government. The African story." (Mar.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Before Theroux became a popular author of novels and travelogues, he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi and an instructor at Makerere University in Uganda. As his 60th birthday approached in 2001, he set out to traverse Africa north to south by road and rail, revisiting old haunts and taking the pulse of the continent. By the time he reached Malawi, he had been "abused, terrified, stranded, harassed, cheated, bitten, flooded, insulted, exhausted, robbed, lied to, brow-beaten, poisoned, stunk up, and starved," but found that he still loved Africa and Africans or some of them, anyway. Tourists and foreign aid workers are another story; the latter get a drubbing for propping up corrupt regimes and putting Africans off the idea of solving their own problems. Some of his observations about Africa's economic decline are astute, although his quest for explanations is limited to what he can extract from the cast of characters he meets along his way. Mostly, however, this book is an intelligent, funny, and frankly sentimental account by a young-at-heart idealist who is trying to make sense of the painful disparity between what Africa is and what he once hoped it might become.
Legendary travel writer and novelist Theroux will probably never work for the Kenya or Malawi (or any other country between Cairo and the Cape) tourist boards after the publication of this latest book. In it, he tells of being shot at in Kenya, depressed in Malawi, pestered in Mozambique, robbed in South Africa, and invaded by intestinal parasites in Ethiopia. But this is no mere tale of travel mishaps. Theroux, who lived and worked in Malawi and Uganda in the 1960s, has a genuine affection for the continent that comes through in his tales of African friends, old and new. Among them he counts a former political prisoner in Nairobi, the prime minister of Uganda, a boat captain on Lake Victoria, a former student in Zomba (in Malawi), a besieged farmer in Zimbabwe, and writer and activist Nadine Gordimer in Johannesburg. Safari is Swahili for journey, and Theroux's is truly fantastic. Typical of Theroux's best work, which focuses on a single trip, this book is recommended for all libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/02.]-Lee Arnold, Historical Soc. of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
America's master traveler (Fresh Air Fiend, 2000, etc.) takes us along on his wanderings in tumultuous bazaars, crowded railway stations, desert oases, and the occasional nicely appointed hotel lobby. "All news of out Africa is bad," Theroux gamely begins. "It made me want to go there." Forty years after making his start as a writer while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi, he returns for a journey from Cairo to Cape Town along "what was now the longest road in Africa, some of it purely theoretical." More reflective and less complaining than some of his other big-tour narratives (e.g., The Happy Isles of Oceania, 1992), Theroux's account finds him in the company of Islamic fundamentalists and dissidents, sub-Saharan rebels and would-be neocolonialists, bin Ladenites, and intransigent white landholders, almost all of them angry at America for one reason or another. The author shares their anger at many points. Of the pharmaceutical plant outside Khartoum that was flattened by a cruise missile on Bill Clinton's orders a few years back, he remarks, "Though we become hysterical at the thought that someone might bomb us, bombs that we explode elsewhere, in little countries far away, are just theater, of small consequence, another public performance of our White House, the event factory." Such sentiments are rarely expressed in post-9/11 America, and Theroux is to be commended for pointing out the consequences of our half-baked imperializing in Africa's miserable backwaters. His criticisms cut both ways, however; after an Egyptian student offends him with the remark, "Israel is America's baby," he replies, "Many countries are America's babies. Some good babies, some bad babies."Theroux is often dour, although he finds hopeful signs that Africa will endure and overcome its present misfortunes in the sight, for instance, of a young African boatman doing complex mathematical equations amid "spitting jets of steam," and in the constant, calming beauty of so many African places. Engagingly written, sharply observed: another winner from Theroux.
“There is everything here for the red-blooded armchair traveller.”
–Christopher Ondaatje, Books in Canada
“Dark Star Safari is a wonderful, powerful book, a loving letter to the continent from a writer who has discovered that he has carried something of its essence, like a talisman, through his adult life.”
–Sunday Times (London)