Saturday, May 09, 2015

Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux

This book, for me, shares something very specific and personal with Ted Heller's Funnymen and Adam Rex's The True Meaning of Smekday: I read each of them intensively while stuck in a hospital overnight for no good reason. (An irregular heartbeat can completely freak out doctors, and doubly so if the patient seems to be perfectly normal while the expensive machines are beeping like crazy. And I think my heart reacts badly to beeping machines, so there's a whole unpleasant feedback loop thing going on there.)

That connection will be entirely besides the point to anyone who isn't me, but I am me, and this is my blog, so that's how I'm leading off. Suck it, everyone else.

It's possible that Paul Theroux's legendary curmudgeonliness is rubbing off on me from reading Dark Star Safari so intensively (though it was the night of March 26-27, so it wasn't that recent), but I think it's more likely the opposite: I like Theroux so much, and keep returning to his work, because we're similar types of curmudgeons, and have compatible views of the worth of humanity. I still haven't read any of his novels, despite meaning to do so, but I get to one of his travel books at least once a year [1] and always deeply enjoy them.

This one is the story of a trip down the East African coast nearly fifteen years ago -- the book was published in 2003, and I suspect the trip itself took place in late 2001. (And it's a testament to how deeply Theroux does get into the bush and the wilderness that a certain event in early September of that year happens offstage and, as far as I can recall, is not mentioned once in the book.) Theroux started in Cairo and ended up in Cape Town, traveling through Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa along the way.

Theroux isn't quite as disgusted and appalled by the state of African cities and their mean money-grubbing ways (from the ubiquitous beggars to the corrupt functionaries) as he was in the aborted trip up the opposite coast a decade later in The Last Train to Zona Verde, but Theroux has depths of disgust and pall that most men only dream of. And we read Theroux in large part for that viewpoint, that jaundiced look at humanity at its civilized worst, so those readers will not be disappointed by Dark Star Safari.

As usual, Theroux also meets a lot of interesting people, and draws his interactions with their often larger-than-life personalities quickly and vividly: he might hate humanity en masse, but he's great at finding and cultivating individual characters during his travels. And he's got strong opinions on Africa in general and its countries in particular: he lived for several years as a Peace Corps teacher in Tanzania in the 1960s and has stronger ties to East Africa than you'd expect of a white guy from Massachusetts.

So Dark Star Safari is concentrated Theroux: lots of muck and danger and hard travel, lots of characters, lots of horrible places and the horrible people who make them worse, lots of railing against most of the above, and not all that much hope for better. A new Theroux reader should not start here; I'd recommend one of the train books (Great Railway Bazaar or Old Patagonian Express, for example) to begin with. But he's a great travel writer -- he goes to interesting places, gets deeply into them, and reports on what he sees vividly and enthrallingly.

[1] See my prior posts about The Last Train to Zona Verde, Ghost Train to the Evening Star, The Imperial Way, and The Pillars of Hercules.

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