Out in Africa

Writer and perspicacious globe-trotter Paul Theroux recently stomped past the age-60 mark. He commemorates this milestone by haunting the past (rather than have it haunt him) and going back to where his famed wanderlust first took root, for a long, overland “safari” of his own devising. He traveled from Cairo to Cape Town—the length of Africa, from top to bottom. From this often awkward and uncomfortable journey, Theroux produced his latest work of nonfiction, Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town.

Often cranky and intermittently intolerant by disposition—I’ve attended at least a couple of readings at which he out-and-out told an audience member his question was “stupid”—Theroux nevertheless has an appetite for stuffing himself into deliberately unpleasant environmental conditions and rising to the challenge with elan and patience. Such travel seems to conjure in him an alertness and hawk-eyed curiosity, qualities that are essential to the alchemy of his most beautiful and stylish travel writing. That inclination has produced some of his more memorable nonfiction, such as Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China and The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas. But his motivations and methodology for Dark Star Safari seem more nostalgic than practical. He is, after all, returning to the continent, where, at 22, he taught English to eager young Malawians while he was in the Peace Corps. He then became a university lecturer in Uganda for several years, where he started writing seriously and began one of the most important friendships in his life with the bilious and brilliant writer V. S. Naipaul.

It was that decades-long friendship—which was by turns mutually engaging, prickly and finally bitter—that inspired another of Theroux’s recent books, Sir Vidia’s Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents. That book was at the top of the curve of the current arc in Theroux’s writing preoccupation—looking back at and parsing the meaning of his productive and perambulatory life.

What distinguished Theroux’s early nonfiction writing, almost always set in exotic and difficult climes, was his ability to be absolutely at one with the moment. He has not abandoned that quality, thankfully. But in growing older and ruminating on the imminence of becoming a septuagenarian, he stands to the side of the pockmarked roads of Africa and watches a little more quietly than in the past.

Ultimately, Theroux sees the Africa he knew once 20 years ago had aged “the way Africans themselves had aged—old at 40.” But he ultimately sees this not as a despairing fact but just the plainspoken reality of the continent: “The Makerere [University] motto was pro futoro aedficamus—we build for the future. … 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 is, in the end, patient, fond and pragmatic about Africa. And this is how he feels about his older self. The book really is less about the current state of Africa and is more a metaphor for Theroux and the rest of us growing older, the cycle of life, and how if we dismiss what the old have to offer and teach, then it is at our own folly: “What all older people know, what had taken me almost 60 years to learn, is that the aged face is misleading. The old are not as frail as you think. … The years have made us more powerful and streetwise. Years are not an affliction. Old age is strength.”