Thursday, April 22, 2010

Literary Bite: Dark Star Safari

If I didn’t already want to toss my cell phone in the Potomac, jump on the next plane, and bum around Africa for multiple months, this book just might introduce that idea to my daydreams.

Dark Star Safari is the story of a man who did just that. Paul Theroux traveled from Cairo to Cape Town on trains, busses, cars, "chicken taxis," and dugout canoes. The only difference between him and me is that he is a 60-year-old world-famous author, and I am well…myself.

This book is pretty epic – 480 pages. But awesome all the way through.  I have somehow never heard of Theroux before, but he has written 31 fiction and 15 non-fiction books. (Oh man, summer reading list anyone? Looks like I have my work cut out for me!)

To read a full biography of Theroux, go here.

Theroux first went to Africa when he served for three years as a Peace Corps teacher in Malawi in the 1960s. Dark Star Safari chronicles his return to the “dark continent.” To read a summary, go here. He goes on a wonderful and awful trip to a wonderful and awful place. 

Theroux is obviously a master of his craft, and expert writer. Even if you know nothing about Africa, or don’t care (gasp! Me. Judging. Now.), I think you will enjoy Dark Star Safari. The stories from his travels are sometimes harrowing, sometimes hilarious, but always interesting.

For example, in Ethiopia it seemed that everyone Theroux encountered had a story of time in prison. One man told him about a copy Gone With the Wind:

“I decided to translate it. I had no paper, so for paper I smoothed out the foil from cigarette packs and used the back side of it…But still I had to share the book – I could only have it for one hour [each day]. The translation took two years. I wrote it on three thousand sheets of cigarette foil.  One by one, I folded these up and put them back into cigarette packs, and when the prisoners were released they took them out of prison, tucked into their shirt pockets...I read it over and over for six years. I know the book by heart” (125).

He later tells the story of a thief in urban Kenya, who is surrounded and publicly murdered by a mob for his crimes…and afterward everyone just returns to their daily business (175).

Most of the controversy over this book is due to Theroux’s strong stance against foreign aid. He rails against plush foreign charities (“agents of virtue”) for creating dependent aid-based artificial economies. Theroux is, at best, pessimistic.

He has a valid point. For over forty years, the “West” has been "helping" African nations, and as a result in that time the standard of living has decreased, illiteracy has increased, and the continent is plagued by overpopulation, AIDS, and disease. Aid is political, and Theroux arugues that it is actually counter-productive, “Leaders needed poverty to obtain foreign aid, needed an uneducated and passive populace to keep themselves in office for decades. A great education system in an open society would produce rivals…” (318).

In conversation with a Kenyan student:

“Donor countries tell us that if all state-owned utilities and industries are turned over to the private sector, it will be the answer.” He smiled at me. “But it isn’t the answer.”

“So what is the answer?” I asked.

He smiled. “Maybe no answer” (180).

 Phew. Heavy stuff. But Theroux does not lecture, he merely observes. 

An article in The Guardian agrees with Theroux that, “aid corrupts its recipients and its providers” but points out that “he never actually visits an aid project or the office of an aid organization.” (Duly noted. I’m just trying to provide a balanced view.)

Mid-way through the book, I found myself wondering why Theroux was doing this in the first place. “I was in no hurry, I wasn’t due anywhere, yet whenever I arrived in an African city, I wanted to leave” (225). I don’t want to give too much away, but read the book. You’ll see that it’s not all doom and gloom and that Theroux actually does love Africa, and he loves writing about it, “How nice it would be…if someone reading the narrative of my African trip felt the same, that it was the next best thing to being there…” (388).

In conclusion, read this book. As you know I already love all things Africa, so I expected to at least like this book. Knowledge of East and South African history probably helps, but I think Dark Star Safari could serve as your introduction into Africa literature (don't worry, I have a long list of Africa books to recommend...but that's another post). 

Bottom line: two thumbs way up!

Read a review by an African here. 

And here's a link to a Paul Theroux discussion group.