Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate|
by Naomi Klein
Post Your Opinion
|Theroux's Dark Star Express
by Christopher Ondaatje
The last book I read by Paul Theroux was Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents¨a most uncomfortable experience. Theroux and Naipaul had met while at Makerere University in Uganda in the mid 60s¨disciple and teacher¨and became strong friends. In fact Theroux published an adulation of V.S. Naipaul, an Introduction to his work in 1972. The friendship blossomed, but something happened over those thirty plus years as Theroux's developing envy erupted into the jaundiced Sir Vidia's Shadow. Perhaps Theroux saw himself as not just Naipaul's victim but as his successor.
For whatever reason Theroux has changed. He is still a brilliantly evocative writer, but something has been lost in Dark Star Safari¨an endless account of poverty, sickness, despair and discomfort as he travels by train, truck and foot from Cairo to Cape Town. "All news out of Africa is bad" Theroux begins. "It made me want to go there." He recalls how he had lived and worked happily, almost forty years ago "in the heart of the greenest continent" but that on this long journey from Egypt through the Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique to South Africa he found that "Africans are the most lied to people on earth¨manipulated by their governments, befooled by charities, and cheated at every turn."
Theroux is implacable and he spares us nothing with his descriptive observation. The sunlit Africa that he once knew with its soft green emptiness of low flat-topped acacias, laughing children, great herds of wild animals, and "every hue of human being from pink-faced planters in knee socks and shorts to brown Indians and Africans with black gleaming faces and ...... some people so dark they were purple" now seemed to be replaced. The red African roads were still there but they were now crowded with ragged bundle-burdened fleeing refugees.
"Travel is a sort of revenge for being put on hold" Theroux explains. This is certainly true. But I wonder in this book whether Theroux has in fact seen the whole picture. He seems on this journey to have met only the desperate, the disillusioned and the damned; but not to have met any of the dedicated leaders who are trying to guide Africa out of the hopeless situation he describes. He finds Africa only battle-scarred, in decline, disorganised and despondent. "We're economic prisoners" one small business owner explains. "We can't afford to go anywhere else." Yet Theroux also points out that Africa for all its hazards represented hope. He had the freedom to write in Africa and something to write about. "Only Africans were capable of making a difference in Africa. All the others, donors, aid volunteers and bankers, however idealistic, were simply agents of subversion."
Reading Theroux in this book is like travelling and being told what to think about. It is an entrapment. He quotes often from Conrad's Heart of Darkness (which he read twelve times before reaching Cape Town); and also from Flaubert. "Travelling makes me modest¨you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world"; and Livingstone "The mere animal pleasure of travelling in a wild unexplored country is very great." He also quotes Joyce, Dickens, Nabakov, Hardy and Saki (H.H. Munro); and refers to other great travellers before him; Burton, Speke, and Edward Lear. He openly states that he began identifying with Rimband and Graham Greene, and that it was in Africa that he began his lifelong dislike of Ernest Hemingway "from his shotguns to his mannered prose." Of all the sorts of travel available in Africa, Theroux points out, the easiest to find and the most misleading is the Hemingway experience. Certainly the Africa of Karen Blixen and Beryl Markham is a thing of the past. And then Theroux reminds us again of the years 1965 to 1968 at Makerere University in Kampala, where he became a husband, householder and father and began his doomed thirty years friendship with V.S. Naipaul who had been at Makerere on Fellowship from the Farfield Foundation. Later he discusses Naipaul again with Nadine Gordimer, the South African author: "Naipaul always wears such a gloomy face"; and a final mention of seeing the newspaper headline in the Cape National Park "PESSIMISTIC GLOBETROTTER WINS NOBEL PRIZE." What a pity!
"Being in Africa was like being on a dark star." Theroux elaborates, "I began to fantasize that the Africa I travelled through was often like a parallel universe, the dark star image in my mind, in which everyone existed as a sort of shadow-counterpart of someone in the brighter world." Indeed this sensitively opinionated travelogue is full of similar epigrams. Very little is left unsaid and, in the end, this very readable, and sometimes hypnotising book left me strangely sad that such a talented writer, who had written such admirable fiction and non-fiction (The Mosquito Coast, Half-Moon Street, The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonia Express) should have lost his sense of wonder.
But don't let this keep you from reading this book. There is everything here for the red-blooded armchair traveller: Felucca journeys up and down the Nile in Egypt (a land to learn colours in); clitoridectomies in the Sudan; the heat in Khartoum with its sky-specs of rotating hawks; the man-eating hyenas of Harar; Shifta attacks on the bandit road to Northern Kenya; prostitutes in Nanyuki; pre-election violence in Uganda; a hazardous ferry ride across Lake Victoria; the bush-train to Dar-Es-Salaam; Burton investigating the Wagogo's sexual habits in old Tanganyika: "questioning the women, measuring the men"; the Kilimanjaro Express to Mbeya (half the African passengers on it were fleeing); sex for food parcels in Malawi¨the eighth poorest country in the world; a dug-out canoe safari down the Shire River in Mozambique; across the mighty Limpopo River into South Africa¨where "everything worked¨even the political system"; and finally an express train in comparative luxury across the boundless Karoo to Cape Town.
"Africa is materially more decrepit than it was when I first knew it," Theroux writes, "hungrier, poorer, less educated, more corrupt, and you can't tell the politicians from the witch-doctors. Not that Africa is one place. It is an assortment of motley republics and seedy chiefdoms. I got sick. I got stranded but I was never bored." This book is a justification of that statement¨it is never boring. ˛