Paul Theroux and I go a long way. I originally picked up his book almost one year ago, in its podcast form, and then – almost immediately – dropped it. The reason? The voice of the reader: whereas most podcasts ought to have soave, refined speakers with mellow tones, the reader of this particular one must’ve been called Billy Bob, was the proud proprietor of the strongest Southern drawl this side of Walker Texas Ranger and also had made an habit of stopping randomly at mid sentence, putting commas where they weren’t (I suspect he had to spit the wad of tobacco he was chewing). In a nutshell, it was terrible.
And that’s a bad thing, for Theroux’s Dark Star Safari is a great read. At the ripe age of 60, unlike most middle-aged men who start feeling an irresistible desire to scrutinize road works or move to Algarve, Theroux decides to embark in the greatest safari – or journey in the Swahili sense of the word – setting off from Cairo with the aim to get to Cape Town.
Lying inbetween he was to find governments allegedly hostile to the US, gun-toting shifta bandits, highway bandits, shoddy infrastructure and sheer desperation, the kind of poverty that sometimes makes headlines in our newspapers with its corollary of heart-shrinking images (“And those are the lucky ones” is the morbose leitmotiv that, Theroux notes, seem always to accompany these news).
Why embarking on this journey, then? In Theroux’s case it’s not the adrenaline thrill that sends him on the road, or the desire of saving Africa single-handedly; rather, it’s the lure of travel itself, of being away, removed from the modern-day scourge of e-mail, faxes, smartphones and Internet. It’s also a sort of home coming, for Theroux lived in Uganda and Malawi, first as a Peace Corps volunteer, then as a teacher, during the 1960s.
Spurred by all the scaremongers he happened to meet in Cairo, and undeterred by the sluggishness of bureaucracy, Theroux sets off on a journey that he recounts in a frankly irresistible way. Ironic, honest and unassuming, he leads the reader everywhere he happens to go, sharing his dreams, side thoughts and opinions without labelling them as facts. Discomfort, harassment and being singled out for being the only mzungo around don’t seem to cross him and he’s luckily immune to the virus of dramatization of his experiences: a great lesson in itself, especially in this age where we seem to be running to tweet enraged remarks of every little mishap that happen in our lives.
Theroux’s voyage across the spine of Africa is also constellated of human encounters, from old friends in Uganda to chance meetings with impoverished Africans with whom he shared his journey. This is, in my opinion, the best part of the book, for Theroux is as gifted in providing a rounded, compelling portrait of the individuals he strike friendship with as he’s quick and witty in dismissing those who, instead, betray the ideal of selflessness and hospitality that seems so common in Africa.
This brings me perfectly to the last point that makes “Dark Star Safari” one of the best travelogues I’ve read in a long time: much of the witty, tranchant remarks are dedicated to the horde of Westerners descending to Africa to sort out its problems, be them NGO workers or Bible thumpers. Despite their best intentions, Theroux – and an increasing number of locals – see their presence more as a liability than as an advantage, and it’s hard to disagree. Throughout the spine of Africa Theroux meets these supposed agents of change, driving new off-road vehicles emblazoned with logos festooned with PC slogans, living a cordoned-off life in hotels and generating a parallel economy made of hookers and fixers, working on complex projects that don’t involve the use of local manpower and that are destined to fail, leaving the few who actually do some good understaffed and underfunded.
This is a supremely entertaining book but, also, a very political testimony about Africa, about how we are failing the continent once again, even when we want to sort it out, and how Africans are failing themselves, by becoming kleptocrats or professional beggars. It’s a book of strong opinions, voiced clearly; it might not be everyone’s taste, I admit, but in this world of blurred lines, extreme political correctness and utter hypocrisy it is a breath of fresh air.