In about five years’ time, there will be a new Paul Theroux travel book, and it will look like this. It will be about 500 pages, and will describe a trip of months, even a year, from point to point or closing a vast circle. It will have about twenty-five chapters, each named after a relevant train or bus or highway, sometimes a ferry or boat. The author will be traveling alone, but will be meeting people along the way, some of whom he will like, and be moved by. He will probably tell us how he got there, but, having finished–not how he got back, to his writing desk and the months of dry work ahead. He will be irritable, insulting, curious, aroused, listening and judgmental; the trip will be about him, his reactions, his Africa or England or China, whatever it is. Except that he has written about those places already, in fat books like his latest, Dark Star Safari: Overland From Cairo to Cape Town; looking at the atlas for places he has missed, only Canada suggests itself, from the Maritimes to the Yukon by choo-choo or perhaps the old hitchhiker’s thumb; or maybe the Happy Isles of the Caribbean, where on visiting Trinidad he can write about his former friend V.S. Naipaul–another trademark of nearly all Theroux’s nonfiction.
Paul Theroux is a polarizing figure–most people I know who have read him can’t bear his opinionating–but why are they reading him, anyway? Expecting the travel writer to be free of snap judgment or bad temper or idle speculation or blind ignorance is asking him to be something exceptional: moderate, objective, restrained, analytical, dispassionate and, especially, “fair.” Travel writing is not for moral relativists, as I discovered trying to teach a course on it three years ago to fresh-faced undergraduates brought up to look on all cultures, all people, as equally remarkable and praiseworthy under the sun. They couldn’t stand the dark severe pronouncements of Naipaul or Theroux, the erupting emotions and jittery, rude exchanges between the Westerner (a rather complicated question in Naipaul’s case) and the native. Travel writing, they expected, would be sunny and warm like the bright places the travel writer visited. But as Theroux has written, in The Pillars of Hercules, “all that jauntiness seems like boasting to me, and dishonest boasting too, since the writers must be hiding so much misery”; and in Granta fourteen years ago, “I had done enough travelling to know that half of it was delay or nuisance–buses breaking down and hotel clerks being rude and market traders being rapacious.”
And so to Africa in the millennial year, where all the same things happen, with buses, clerks, traders and more–armed bandits, relentless begging children, officious small-time officials, soldiers and policemen, dazed Western tourists, dolled-up prostitutes raddled with AIDS and aid workers, here called “agents of virtue,” who won’t give Theroux rides in their shiny white jeeps, or other casual assistance. The subject of aid and Africa is its own tremendous subtopic within Theroux’s book, which this reviewer is not qualified to assess. The charitable way to consider it is as a diversion, for its “tone of melodrama among relief workers, charity in Africa frequently being a form of theater.” Theroux picking fights with agents of virtue, or watching them go about self-importantly with their cell phones, evokes a certain malicious pleasure worth briefly savoring. The more sobering possibility is that Western aid is more than a waste of time, imprisoning Africans in an enforced helplessness that fosters neither institutions nor development but creates a culture where Africans might pray “for a disaster so that they would be noticed,” or otherwise refuse to shift for themselves. It is a piecemeal conclusion arrived at in vignettes from Sudan south to Mozambique: “Only Africans were capable of making a difference.” It is an inversion of the Western dilemma, where for decades foreigners have been brought in to do work that Americans and Europeans won’t do; returning to Malawi after nearly forty years, Theroux asks, “Should outsiders go on doing jobs and taking risks that Africans refused?”
Theroux’s authority to pose questions like this, and answer them in ways that will displease a large, politically connected and powerful movement, comes from a long history in Africa, even if spaced decades apart. Theroux is never a first-time traveler, it seems; he started in Africa in the early 1960s as a Peace Corps teacher in Malawi, and followed that with a lengthy teaching stint in Kampala, Uganda, at Makerere University, where among the faculty was the slightly older V.S. Naipaul, whom “Africa frightened…so badly he cursed it, wishing it ill until the curse became a dismissive mantra that ignorant readers could applaud: ‘Africa has no future.'”
This is the difference between the two temperamentally rather similar men: Theroux was never prepared to believe Africa had no future, was at heart a fearful place; he understood instead “that the bush is benign.” In those years he felt happy, found love, married, started a family, first started thinking of himself as a writer, a serious person. His confidence and security, the very opposite of what Naipaul took out of Africa, were born in that time and have never left him; Dark Star Safari is an often grim book, but it is never hopeless or dire. Even at the end of his trip, through all the corruption and horror Africa’s dictators have visited on their lands and people, the beaten, oppressed Africans Theroux has met–has any wandering travel writer talked to more people who were tortured or jailed?–the deep scars of AIDS and famine, Theroux does not fear for the continent. Africa has “changed for the worse” in nearly all respects he can measure since his expatriate years in the 1960s, but Theroux is never unstirred by what he sees, a beautiful continent sometimes silent, sometimes in motion, wasting away and still reviving itself. Theroux’s old university in Kampala is a wreck, but he is not distressed:
The Makerere motto was Pro futuro aedificamus–We build for the future. What a nice idea! But it is a rarefied humanistic notion of the West, not an African tradition. Change and decay and renewal were the African cycle: a mud hut was built; it fell down; a new one replaced it.
Theroux hates the African cities he visits but sees a way of life in the rural hinterlands to be impressed with: poor and backward, maybe, but “simpler, happier.” No doubt this is a fantasy that is nice for him but not for those who must actually live there, but Theroux later admits what most travelers would, if they are honest: that all travel is an act of imagination, where “one’s mood is crucial.” And so for him–which is not the same for you or me–Africa is indeed this “fantasy, an adventure in rejuvenation.”
This is not to say that Theroux suffers no disillusion or disappointment on his trip. He has big plans for Malawi, he tells us; it will be his sixtieth birthday:
I had asked the U.S. embassies in Uganda and Kenya to send an e-mail to the embassy in Lilongwe, saying that I was available to speak at any school or college in the country or to meet aspiring African writers. I would also visit my old school, maybe bring some textbooks, and I would volunteer to spend a week teaching, to show my gratitude to Malawi after so many years: the long-lost son returning to give something back on his birthday.
Naturally it is grandiose–a few books or talks, a handful of days teaching? Theroux himself now an agent of virtue?–and it is a disaster. The embassy has no interest in helping him (there is a marvelous comic sketch of an unkempt, slightly crazed Theroux badgering the diffident ambassador in his official quarters), the school itself is practically defunct, there is no volunteering to be done. A Scottish girl who clearly reminds him of his younger self escorts him around, notes the absence, in the library, of light bulbs or books, the latter mostly stolen by students. “I will never send another book to this country,” Theroux avers. What if we left, he asks the young teacher, and hears himself in her answer:
Then the people here would have to think for themselves. They’d have to decide what’s best for them–what they want…. Maybe they would say they wanted education–and they’d have to do the teaching. They’d have to do what we’re doing…. Or maybe they’d decide that they wouldn’t want a change. They might allow things to stay as they are. Lots of the people in villages are fine. They’re not miserable.
Toward the end of his stay in Malawi he dines at the home of an old friend, a leading citizen of the country, who after drinks becomes sentimental with his guest: a fatal mistake for which old friendship spares one not at all. He asks for Theroux’s sons to come and teach, to “be a source of ideas and inspiration” in Malawi. For Theroux it is like Abraham being told to sacrifice Isaac. It turns out the man’s nine children are mostly abroad, in the West. This is where they are needed, Theroux replies in a fury, not like his kids who can change nothing even as Africa changes them. Those nine privileged offspring “are the only people–the only possible people–who will ever make a difference here.”At the same dinner another African–a former ambassador in Europe–has cheerfully told Theroux, “We are not cut out for this shopkeeping and bookkeeping and…number crunching”; this is what colonialism has done for Africans, the author implies, rendered them invalids.
So now, the visitor must know his limits, and on this score Theroux is quite careful: not meddlesome, not intervening, a well-wisher who understands his constraints. Such a stance paradoxically allows him a greater intimacy with Africa and Africans, unlike the agents of virtue, who “seemed to represent a new breed of priesthood, but…were the most circumspect, evasive, and unforthcoming people…either scolding or silent.” All this is anecdotal and arguable, of course, but it makes sense: The traveler sheds his insulating material in ways the bureaucrat with a mission statement cannot. And with the insulation gone, the heat dissipates. There is something deeply sensual about Theroux moving anonymously through Africa, reading Heart of Darkness thirteen times, even if, as he says, he denies himself the comforts of whores who press themselves upon him at nearly all his stops. The writing project that comes to him in Egypt, staying with him his entire trip through the train to Cape Town when he recopies his manuscript by hand, is a long erotic story, as he calls it, a fantasy of a young man traveling with an older woman that presumably sublimates the overwhelming rush of emotion the continent has had on him. If we are to believe him, Theroux has no sex on this journey but has otherwise pressed himself very deep into the flesh of Africa, where, like Rimbaud in Ethiopia, “I is someone else.”
Paul Theroux, who has described travel as “a vanishing act,” only resurfaces in the act of writing, when he says he had hoped to disappear entirely. The ideal traveler, for him, would probably be someone like Patrick White’s Voss (based on the German Ludwig Leichhardt, lost in Australia), disappearing into another continent, or Oates in Antarctica or Mallory up Everest. But no such luck, and in fact Theroux’s death wish is rather tepid, as he would himself certainly admit. He just wants to be out of touch for a while, not bothered by the telephone or fax or e-mail or demands on his time. But still he courts danger, in the horrible buses and trucks and other conveyances he rides; even at the end, in Cape Town, when advised by a railway clerk, “Don’t go to a squatter camp,” he begins the next paragraph, “The next day I went to a squatter camp.” But this is stubbornness more than foolhardiness or bravery. One remembers that the book is not the same gesture as the journey. In that Granta essay Theroux had written that “a travel book, I had discovered [while writing his first, The Great Railway Bazaar], was a deliberate act–like the act of travel itself. It took health and strength and confidence.” But this can’t quite be right, for the travel book is written knowing that one has survived, which one can’t possibly say during the travel itself.
The travel book is invested, inevitably, with a survivor’s gusto or bravado, even when tamped down by a deliberate effort, and it is what generally gives these books spirit and vitality. It is probably what makes Theroux’s travel books all resemble each other, even though the individual contents are so various. The Africa book is not like the England walking book is not like the Western Hemisphere rail journey book. It is a different man each time, recovering from a different place. “You never come all the way back,” Theroux remarks of this tendency in his final African days.
The traveler has changed. But he is not necessarily better or improved. The question of moral growth seldom comes into it. Travel writing is not scholarship, nor is it about getting one’s facts right. There is no obligation to be fair, only to be true to your own experience, which, as Theroux mentions in Granta, means “the moments of desperation or fear or lust…the names of books read to kill time, the condition of toilets.” The Guardian‘s reviewer of Dark Star Safari has noted numerous historical and reporting errors by Theroux, yet still concedes his work is “free of many of the routine faults of travel books about Africa. There is none of the authorial self-mythologisation or romantic primitivism…. There’s nothing dishonest in Theroux’s account.” I have never been to Africa, yet I wouldn’t confuse Theroux’s book with an education on this subject. When Evelyn Waugh wrote that he preferred all but the worst travel books to all but the best novels, he was making a fair comparison: The travel book is more like fiction, where we go to find the recognizable, if often unpleasant, truth about ourselves. Travel writing ups the ante; there is no novelist’s weaselly way out: “It isn’t me.” One has to be prepared to be made unlikable in the eyes of readers, a risk few writers are willing to take.
In his books, Theroux is always meeting famous writers, easier when you’re a famous writer yourself. In The Old Patagonian Express it was Borges in Buenos Aires; here, in Cairo, it is Mahfouz and, in Johannesburg, Nadine Gordimer, whose husband’s funeral marks the close of Dark Star Safari. But by this time I was thinking of another literary figure: “He seemed at once preoccupied, knowledgeable, worldly, remote, detached, vain, skeptical, eccentric, self-sufficient, indestructible, egomaniacal, and hospitable to praise. He was like almost every other writer I had known in my life.” This is Theroux on Paul Bowles, in The Pillars of Hercules. It is also, of course, himself.