Although Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar is one of my all-time favorite books, I stopped reading him when he fell into what seemed to me to be an interminable bad mood--somewhat ironically, along about Happy Isles of Oceania, I think, in 1993, so it’s been quite a while since I picked up a Theroux travel narrative. But a friend recommended his Dark Star Safari (Houghton, 2004), and, ever trusting (and, as always, looking for a good book to read), I tried it, and was immediately hooked. It begins, “All news out of Africa is bad. It made me want to go there, though not for the horror, the hot spots, the massacre-and-earthquake stories you read in the newspaper; I wanted the pleasure of being in Africa again.” I’m a sucker for an opening line like that. There are sentences on every page of this engrossing book that you just want to write down and share with others. Theroux seems to have recovered his emotional equilibrium and shed most of his grumpiness and petulance; all of his talent for discovering the unusual in the ordinary people he meets and places he visits is in evidenced on every page of this tale of his trip overland from Cairo to Cape Town. Here’s another wonderful line, also from the first chapter:
I … was heading south, in my usual traveling mood: hoping for the picturesque, expecting misery, braced for the appalling. Happiness was unthinkable, for although happiness is desirable, it is a banal subject for travel. Therefore, Africa seemed perfect for a long journey.
Along the way, he celebrates his 60th birthday, revisits Uganda (where he once taught at Makerere University), and offers his opinion (not high) on the efficacy of foreign aid. He travels by nearly every sort of conveyance you can imagine: a variety of trucks, a ferry, train, bus, and dugout canoe (a particularly fascinating section) and talks to a diverse group of people from all walks of life, both Africans and others, such as missionaries, tourists and aid workers from Western countries, which gives him (and us) a well-rounded portrait of a continent struggling to find itself. Incidentally, there’s a very funny joke on page 123 of the paperback edition.