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?”