Thursday, 6 February 2014

Paul Theroux goes back to Africa, forty years after

Carl Jung said that, 
Among all my patients in the second half of life--that is to say, over thirty-five--there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life.
This, though he might not know it, is the theme of Paul Theroux's account in Dark Star Safari of the journey he took in 2001 across Africa, where he began his career, from Cairo to Cape Town, mostly by bus. It means one more of his long, arduous, frequently bad tempered overland journeys and at the end of this one he turns sixty. Almost as impressive as the  long very uncomfortable journey was the fact that he avoided the internet and emails throughout. He ends by celebrating, if that is the word (it is not), his sixtieth birthday in Cape Town at dinner with the novelist Nadine Gordimer. He wanted to keep his birthday a secret but she knew because she read it on the internet. The book is a reflection on time and ageing, as much as on Africa.

I came across this book lying around Ruby Backpackers where I was staying last August in Ilha de Mocambique. It has been read by a lot of white people in their twenties who make similar trips by bus and hitch-hiking around Africa. They made me feel guilty about travelling around Mozambique by plane or car but I was slightly unclear about why one would want to spend weeks in Madagascar or Malawi. There are not very many sights in those countries, if, like me, you think historical monuments and interesting towns are what constitute sights. One plummy voiced English 25 year-old who had rented out his flat in Amsterdam and was backpacking around the Dark Continent illuminated me. 'There are the sights and there is the fun of travelling.' The discomfort is a lot of the fun.

The problem with travel books, however good, is that, unlike novels, biographies or history, they do not always give you a strong reason for persevering after several chapters. You enjoy the writer's prose style, or not, get the idea and put the book down. In this case I was carried along and wanted to know how the journey would end. 

Very badly is the answer. In the last two or three pages Mr. Theroux's belongings, left in the safe of his hotel in Johannesburg, were stolen. Despite his atheism he was grateful that the notes for the book by a  'miracle' were saved. Then, on his way home, stopping over in Addis Ababa, he ate something which infested him with parasites. These things stayed with him for a year and caused him a lot of pain, defying doctors' attempts to expunge them and no doubt contributing to the crotchetiness of his writing. Perhaps there is something to be said for going on holiday in Greece.

Africa is not nearly so remote as it was when Paul Theroux went out to teach in Nyasaland just before it became independent. Nowhere is. Although he manfully eschewed the internet, he could have walked into an internet cafĂ© in most of the small poor towns he passed through. And Africa is now on the tourist trail. He takes one of the innumerable Nile cruises along with a number of his fellow Americans, while waiting for his Sudanese visa, and cuts a shrunken figure there. He fulminates against people who come to look at big game or worse to shoot it rather than talk to Africans. I take his point completely, but all travel is voyeuristic, whether you look at cheetahs or poor people.

I thoroughly enjoyed and strongly recommend the book but I do not think I would like Paul Theroux if I met him. Now I have finished the book I am rather glad to be rid of him, his misanthropy and his closed mindedness. A lot of time is taken up describing how much worse things are in Africa in 2001 than they were at the time of independence. This is important but it is something I think we all knew. Few, surely, are surprised. Oddly, this does not lead him to give any credit to colonialism, not even in the case of Nyasaland which, he says, as independent Malawi, was 'a tyranny from day one'. He has the usual prejudices of an American liberal, but political thinking is not his strong point. 

The European powers simply came to Africa to pillage the place of its mineral resources, he says. In fact, even if their motives were not altruistic, the colonialists built roads, operated railways, created drainage systems and brought that word people are nowadays uncomfortable with, civilisation, to Africa. As a Portuguese diplomat said to me recently - we were discussing the Portuguese Empire - the Africans would have colonised Europe had they had the chance. Yes indeed and with truly disastrous results.

Mr. Theroux tells us that the Tazara railway  in Tanzania, which was built by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution, had the 'commendable' purpose of freeing Tanzania from her dependence on apartheid South Africa. He does not ask himself whether apartheid was less commendable than Maoism or whether good relations with South Africa might have been more useful for the ordinary Tanzanian than good relations with Mao's China. Left-wing socialism in fact was disastrous for Tanzania and everywhere else in Africa.

We are shown sympathetically the plight of a white Zimbabwean farmer whose land is being squatted on by war veterans encouraged by the Mugabe Government. But Zimbabwe was still a relatively comfortable place, much more so than her neighbours, and I realised that this is the legacy of prosperity created under white rule. Kenya sounds a dystopia, as does, despite her being a sort of First World country, crime-ridden South Africa.

Unlike me, Mr. Theroux does not like towns and says
Urban life is nasty all the world over but it is nastiest in Africa.
A bit sweeping surely. Indeed Sub-Saharan Africa has very few interesting towns but one that is old and attractive is Harar in Ethiopia, where Mr. Theroux stayed a week and I stayed two nights two years ago. We stayed in the same hotel (I kick myself for not having stayed in the one Evelyn Waugh put up in). I enjoyed Mr. Theroux's account very much but when accidentally reading my account I thought mine even better. You can judge here

Maputo is not enchanting, as some claim, but it has a charm and a vibe. It is a pleasant and relatively safe place on which Mr. Theroux is too harsh, as he is on Addis Ababa. On the other hand, ten years have passed since he wrote and Mozambique and Ethiopia have both seen very rapid economic growth. 10% a year in many years.

Arthur Rimbaud gave up writing poetry and settled in Harar as an arms dealer. 
'He liked Africa for being 'the anti-Europe, the anti-West, which it is', 
says Mr. Theroux. This is why those British and Americans in their twenties go there, because it is the least globalised place left (Burma and North Korea excepted). These are the reasons that drew me to Eastern Europe when it was communist and Romania was much more remote than Nairobi. 

Some of what Mr. Theroux is looking for is suggested in this passage, where he has found a minibus going where he wants to go, in a small town in Malawi:
The vehicle reeked of diesel oil and chicken blood in the evening heat, and was half-filled with passengers. I stood near it listening to the racket of the nighttime insects. The market was ramshackle and very dirty, run by grannies and ragged boys. A man was roasting corncobs on a smoky fire. A short distance away, glowing in moonlight, was a huge cactus, like a saguaro with upraised arms.
These lines for me are beautiful. if this kind of travel does not appeal to you, dear reader, (it does to me, up to a point) Paul Theroux does it so that you don't have to.

Many good and great writers are not very clever and Mr. Theroux is one of them. This does not matter except at the end where he spends a railway journey in Mozambique arguing against Christianity with a pretty, young American girl missionary who is working with homeless people and prostitutes. He seems to think, quoting an article he has read written by a feminist, that prostitution is an economically realistic way for young women to get out of poverty. All else aside, this ignores the fact that few men in Africa seem, so he tells us, to use condoms and a very large number of Africans have AIDS. 

There are so many, very intelligent objections to Christianity, but Mr. Theroux's objection is that Africans have enough problems without believing in sin and eternal punishment as well. He also likes Africans to remain animists because this is their culture. Hmmm. He is arguing with himself and asking himself what the purpose of life is and not finding one. 

But Paul Theroux was raised a Catholic and though it does not seem he still is one the only Christians in the book for whom he has praise are Catholic nuns who devote their lives to Africa, unlike his bĂȘtes noires the aid workers who come in and leave. If he is an atheist he is a Catholic atheist.

Paul Theroux's ten rules for travel writing are here.


  1. You doth protest to much. Anyway all travel writers since Patrick Leigh Fermor seem to be mere tourists who write for a living, except, perhaps, William Dalrymple.

    1. Good point Alan. I'm so bored of travel writing but I'm writing a travel book. I have to write about my post-uni-years-on-the-road in order to get it out of my system.

      Thanks for this Paul.

    2. During the 1980s travel writing boom I never read any of those books and now travel writing is a dying genre. Travel writing is the one kind of non-fiction where literary skill is as important as in fiction - style is crucial because there is no story to pull the reader along and he can get information from the internet. Style and ideas and autobiography. I am glad you are writing a book - it is the best therapy, I am convinced, but I am blocked!

  2. South Africa is by no means a first world country. Even Romania is more of a first world country than South Africa.