Travel literature is a tricky business, especially when you’ve traveled half the world already and seem to be a tad cynical. Unlike Theroux’ other work, Dark Star Safari is a lot more about people and problems than about travel.
Let’s start with the obvious: Africa is a complicated continent. It’s huge, it houses hundreds of different tribes and people, and it was left in ruins by some idiotic colonists who thought they could use it as their personal bank account. The outcome of this rather simple equation is that Africa is still trying to find itself, and the solutions to the problems they are currently having. While Dark Star Safari Droughtwas originally written in 2002, many of the problems described by Theroux still exist and many new ones have entered the stage. and failing harvests are only becoming worse, resulting in whole tribes and people being uprooted to find their luck and livelihood elsewhere. However, it is rather unlike Theroux to focus this much on problems instead of travel…
The famous travel writer Paul Theroux has traveled to most corners of the world, and has written some amazing books about his travels. Normally, when reading one of his books you really get to travel alongside the writer as he meets interesting people, sees amazing natural features, and more. However, Dark Star Safari is a tad different. Theroux lived in Africa many years before he started travelling and writing this book and therefore he can’t help but to compare the Africa of the past to the Africa of the present. And a lot has changed since then, nog much for the good. Because of this, the book is rather cynical and politically motivated. Theroux starts pointing out the flaws in the systems rather than the beauty and strength of mankind living in harsh countries. While I practically finished Great Railway Bazaar in three days, Dark Star Safari took me three weeks. Not because it wasn’t interesting, but because of the immense detail about the pasts of political structures, countries, and other social aspects that Theroux normally dismisses a bit.
The continent Africa has problems, on an ecological level. While the countries in Africa struggle with their own affairs that are just as destructive. Theroux has some valid points and knows how to build a proper argument, but I don’t usually buy his books to read about problems unless they are travel related. However, Dark Star Safari does make you think about that exact sentence. Because why shouldn’t we think about the problems of Africa, as it indirectly involves problems that we see all around the world? And why do we think we can “just fix it”, while we do it in a way that is – in the end – even more destructive? This is why the book took me three weeks, because I had to soak in all the information and wanted to form my own critical thoughts about them. However, if you do not feel up for that, then you might want to skip this one book of Theroux and pick up something more like The Happy Isles of Oceania.
Dark Star Safari
“Safari” in Swahili means a journey, typically a long one. In “Dark Star Safari”, Theroux’s itinerary is African, from Cairo to Cape Town – down the Nile, through Sudan and Ethiopia, to Kenya, Uganda and beyond to South Africa. Journeying by train, boat and cattle truck, he passes through some of the most beautiful – and often life-threatening – landscapes on earth. This is travel as discovery, but it is in part a sentimental journey. Almost 40 years ago, Theroux first travelled in Africa as a teacher in the Malawi bush. Now he stops at his old school, sees former students and revisits his African friends. Seeing first-hand what has happened in Africa in those four decades of independence, Theroux is obsessively curious and wittily observant.
Paul Theroux. Dark Star Safari / Penguin / 9780140281118