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the Complete Review
the complete review - travel

Dark Star Safari

Paul Theroux

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To purchase Dark Star Safari

Title: Dark Star Safari
Author: Paul Theroux
Genre: Travel
Written: 2002
Length: 472 pages
Availability: Dark Star Safari - US
Dark Star Safari - UK
Dark Star Safari - Canada
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Safari Noir - France
Dark star safari - Italia
  • Overland from Cairo to Cape Town

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Our Assessment:

A- : entertaining, varied account

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 20/3/2003 Henk Rossouw
Daily Telegraph . 26/10/2002 Lewis Jones
Evening Standard . 4/11/2002 James Boyd Maunsell
Foreign Affairs . 11-12/2003 Gail M. Gerhart
The Guardian . 2/11/2002 John Ryle
The Independent . 26/10/2002 Margaret Busby
The LA Times A 6/4/2003 Merle Rubin
The Nation . 31/3/2003 Eric Weinberger
The NY Times Book Rev. C 30/3/2003 Rand Richards Cooper
News & Observer A 6/4/2003 Marvin Hunt
San Francisco Chronicle A- 30/3/2003 Mark Slouka
The Spectator A 26/10/2002 Sara Wheeler
Sydney Morning Herald . 28/12/2002 Suzanne Falkiner
The Telegraph . 3/11/2002 John Preston
The Times . 6/11/2002 Peter Longworth
TLS . 6/12/2002 Giles Foden
USA Today . 14/4/2003 Stephen J. Lyons
The Village Voice . 25/4/2003 Lenora Todaro
Wall St. Journal . 28/3/2003 Ted Botha
The Washington Post . 30/3/2003 Robert D. Kaplan

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus and quite a few objections, but most were quite taken by it

  From the Reviews:
  • "And where Theroux sees Africa uncluttered by preconceived notions, his writing can be brilliant. (...) But where Theroux has traveled before (...) he sees Africa not for what it is, but for what it might have been. Nothing is more exhausting than his 100-page tirade describing things that do not exist: roads, real government, a future." - Henk Rossouw, Christian Science Monitor

  • "Theroux is good at complaining, and there is much to complain about in Africa" - Lewis Jones, Daily Telegraph

  • "During the last leg of the journey (Mozambique, Zimbabwe, South Africa), his heart doesn't really seem in it. But he lingers at the end, reluctant to go back home to Hawaii. Although it is at many points a revelatory, provocative read, you sense that this Dark Star Safari has only managed to scratch the surface of Africa." - James Boyd Maunsell, Evening Standard

  • "Mostly, however, this book is an intelligent, funny, and frankly sentimental account by a young-at-heart idealist who is trying to make sense of the painful disparity between what Africa is and what he once hoped it might become." - Gail M. Gerhart, Foreign Affairs

  • "Theroux's peevish passages on aid set the tone of Dark Star Safari, but they are not its main drift. (...) There are compelling episodes, when the author's prejudices melt away and the spirit of place asserts itself. (...) There's nothing dishonest in Theroux's account. It is frequently diverting and sometimes moving. His journey through the continent was long and hard and one can admire him for it. No one could accuse him of not doing the footwork. But he should have done a lot more homework." - John Ryle, The Guardian

  • "Yet, with erudition and wit aplenty, he ultimately seems to argue for stasis" - Margaret Busby, The Independent

  • "Composed with passion, eloquence and insight, Dark Star Safari is travel writing at its most eye-opening, thought-provoking and heartfelt." - Merle Rubin, The Los Angeles Times

  • "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 (...) Theroux does not fear for the continent." - Eric Weinberger, The Nation

  • "Actually, Theroux himself seems mostly miserable. The tricky balance that has served him so well in the past eludes him here. (...) Theroux's critique of Africa seems more like anger in search of an argument." - Rand Richards Cooper, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Dark Star Safari is splendid. It may be Theroux's best travel book, which is saying a lot for the author of 10 travel books. (...) The grand scope of Dark Star Safari commands attention. (...) Intense, ironic, skeptical, bemused, learned but never pretentious, an insider's story written with impeccable elegance by our most enduring and extraordinary travel writer, these 472 pages amount to something rare and wonderful for reasons that have nothing to do with Africa. Dark Star Safari is real literature, to use an often disparaged term." - Marvin Hunt, News & Observer

  • "Theroux, one suspects, could be a headache to travel with; resourceful, courageous and indefatigable, as well as crusty, opinionated and contradictory, he's at once too much and not enough. But listening to him recount his adventures (...) is another matter. He can make you forget to eat, this man. (...) Theroux's energy is infectious, his curiosity omnivorous, his audacity, well, remarkable." - Mark Slouka, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Readers grew tired of Theroux partly because he was always such a shatteringly miserable travelling companion. No place was so exotic that it failed to bore him to tears. Here, though, in his latest journey, he actually enjoys himself, and as a result the prose leaps to life like a mosaic splashed with water. (...) Even the ills of a continent, though, canít keep this book down. Theroux is, quite simply, a marvellous writer (of course, it never is simple really)." - Sara Wheeler, The Spectator

  • "In an oddly structured (or perhaps just poorly edited) text that often travels discursively ahead of and behind his journey and then loops back into repetitions of the same observations, Theroux, always a compelling writer, provides a substantial account - nearly 500 pages. Nevertheless, he keeps us compulsively turning pages" - Suzanne Falkiner, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "But despite such moments this is far from being a gloomy book. Theroux is an ideal sort of traveller: curious, passionate and well-served by his motto of "try anything twice". What's more, he loves Africa; just being there makes his heart swell with pleasure. At the same time he's constantly trying to work out just what has gone wrong. Why is the whole place in such a mess ?" - John Preston, The Telegraph

  • "Dark Star Safari is a terrific read. Like Palin he gives us vistas and African sunsets, but this is not a scenic ride. When his attention is grabbed -- by an issue, a landscape or some unfortunate fellow traveller -- Theroux is a hyena with a bone." - Peter Longworth, The Times

  • "As a whole, Dark Star Safari is an attempt to test at first hand the thesis that Africa is a basket case, one that continues to be made worse by its encounter with the West as the recipient of aid and "development"" - Giles Foden, Times Literary Supplement

  • "This is not the green continent he fondly recalls. Oddly, it hardly matters, for adversity is what he's after. (...) Each delay affords him a new opportunity to strike up a conversation, and Theroux uses his gift of gab to collect memorable stories" - Lenora Todaro, The Village Voice

  • "In discussing the disease growth of African cities, Theroux demonstrates how a traveler's finely wrought observations of people and landscape sometimes offer the best political and social analysis. (...) Few recent books provide such a litany of Africa's ills, even as they make one fall in love with the continent. (...) Theroux is best at shorthand dissections of trends that have already become obvious. In no other book will one find such entertaining and penetrating comments about the ironies, as well as the historic failure, of foreign aid." - Robert D. Kaplan, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Paul Theroux lived and taught in Africa in the mid-1960s, first coming there as a Peace Corps volunteer. He's described some of his experiences, both in his early novels and in books such as Sir Vidia's Shadow (see our review). In Dark Star Safari he returns to some of his old haunts, in Malawi and Uganda, several decades later, as well as taking in most of the eastern side of Africa.
       It's an ambitious trip, all overland, including areas not much visited by tourists (notably Sudan, and parts of Ethiopia and Mozambique -- though even Theroux doesn't make it to Somalia). But Theroux works hard not to be your average tourist -- indeed, to give the impression of not being a tourist at all, but a more classical sort of traveller, not in it for the sights but rather driven by the travel itself. And try as he might he can't be your average backpaker either: a world-famous author he (as usual) stumbles across people reading his books, and looks up old friends like the Prime Minister of Uganda and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer (and he also visits another Nobel laureate, Naguib Mahfouz).
       It's also a journey back, to certain beginnings ("Uganda had been the making of me"), and one of reflection. He frequently mentions his approaching birthday -- a big one, giving him a certain old man status (though given how often he remarks how young people think he looks obviously not one he's eager to embrace). And Africa allows him an almost complete escape: he's thrilled to be practically unreachable (by phone, fax, or e-mail). He's glad to follow, at least partially, in Rimbaud's footsteps:

He had liked Africa for being the anti-Europe, the anti-West, which it is, sometimes defiantly, sometimes lazily. I liked it for those reasons, too, for there was nothing of home here. Being in Africa was like being on a dark star.
       (Later the dark star imagery becomes ... darker: "I began to fantasize that the Africa I traveled through was often like a parallel universe, the dark star image in my mind, in which everyone existed as a sort of shadow counterpart of someone in the brighter world.")
       Early on Theroux mentions reading Conrad's Heart of Darness -- "which I was to read twelve more times before I reached Cape Town" -- but it's not a guiding text for most of the book. Theroux finds reference points, to that and other books, but on the whole he prefers to dwell simply on the simple, day-to-day, the encounters and small experiences and hardships along the way.
       The book moves easily and comfortably along, in a style familiar from Theroux's many previous travel-books, though here it's more striking than elsewhere how much detail is left out. Theroux moves surprisingly effortlessly and it's often hard to picture it. Just how little luggage does he have ? When and where and how does he wash his clothes ? Where does he change his money ? (The book still weighs in at almost 500 pages, but it could easily do with more.)

       Theroux begins in touristy Egypt -- which, amusingly, no one from there considers to be part of Africa yet. Sudan and Ethiopia offer a different sort of exoticism -- impoverished, war-torn, removed from most of modernity. Theroux captures the places nicely -- the friendliness of the Sudanese (despite the country appearing so uninviting to outsiders) and aspects of Ethiopia's frozen-in-time poverty -- though occasionally it seems he sketches too lightly. There's little of southern Sudan (where most of the fighting is going on) or, for example, even much mention of Eritrea (which he also by-passed) beyond some war-talk, and while it is understandable that Theroux focusses on what he does see it would have been interesting to hear more, for example, about why he avoids certain areas.
       (Odd too the maps by Jacques Chazaud at the beginning of the book, allowing one to trace Theroux's travels, more or less: Eritrea does not exist on the map, with Ethiopia still depicted as undivided, while Rwanda and Burundi are there, their borders nicely drawn, but their names left out. Perhaps it's meant to keep attention on the places where Theroux did travel, but given that these places do at least find some mention it might have been useful to point them out to curious readers here.)
       It's the foreigners that make for the quirkiest stories: the aid workers, especially (encountered almost everywhere), or the odd Rastafarian exiles in Ethiopia. Thankfully, Theroux rarely falls for the simple appeal of the exotic or unusual, especially with regards to outsiders (though he does romanticize the (slightly fish-out-of-water) Westerners who've become African on occasion) -- so, for example, about the Rastafarian's dreadlocked hair:
The dreadlocks were weird to Ethiopians, not African at all, and not the cultural statement Rastas regarded them, but just the epitome of a bad hair day.
       Kenya seems to him to have gone particularly downhill, the fault of the long-time (mis)ruler Danny arap Moi, but Theroux also dislikes the place for the safari-tourists that visit (and remain blissfully unaware of any sort of true Africa).
       Uganda almost counts as a success story in Africa, but even here Theroux finds "everything was on the wane". The decrepitude here and elsewhere leads Theroux to observe (borrowing from Auden via Achebe): "That's what happened in Africa: things fell apart". Makerere University, where he taught in the late 1960s, is run down and hardly seems the site of such promise as when he was there. He goes to the library and finds:
The library -- always a good gauge of the health of a university -- was in very poor shape, unmaintained, with few users in sight and many empty shelves. (...) There were no new books. What had been the best library in East Africa was now just a shell.
       Still, he understands it. The university was a Western imposition, based on Western ideals and traditions:
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.
       Tanzania is a failed socialist experiment, Zimbabwe offers at least one almost liveable (if very tense) African capital and allows him to see the consequences of Mugabe's land-grabs from white farmers, while parts of Mozambique allow for true escape from almost everything. Theroux also visits small, crowded Malawi, where he first taught, and finds a place where there still isn't a surgeon in the whole northern half of the country. No surgeon -- but at least there's still the "heavily staffed" Malawi Censorship Board, and at least Theroux still has a book on the banned-books list (as does everyone from John Updike to George Orwell) -- though Malawi doesn't seem a place where banning books has made the locals more eager to get their hands on the forbidden works.
       The final stop is South Africa, different from the rest because there is considerably more wealth. There's a great deal of crime here too, and Theroux is more concerned about it (and, naturally, manages to get robbed here of all places).

       A common thread across almost all of Africa is the many people he meets who have spent much of their lives in jail under oppressive regimes. Prostitutes also always make for good company -- though Theroux claims just to buy them food and drinks.
       The dangers of road travel are also amusingly recounted, with Theroux frequently mentioning the newspaper headlines of yet another senseless mass-death in some overcrowded vehicle (and occasionally, as he careens down some road or considers whether or not to risk life and limb on a bus again, he pictures himself figuring in such a headline too).
       Also everywhere are the aid workers, many affiliated with religious groups, and Theroux has his fun with the proselytisers. He's generally not fond of any form of aid workers: "they were, in general, oafish, self-dramatizing prigs, and often complete bastards." He wonders about the aid phenomenon, and concludes (several times) "the whole push has been misguided". It's obvious to him, wherever he goes, that it's done little good, except in promoting reliance on outside help rather than trying to help (or force) the Africans to become self-reliant. He's particularly disturbed by the fact that the aid workers have been unable (and/or unwilling) to involve the Africans themselves -- though he understands why that's so: if the Africans can help themselves they won't need these do-gooders, who will then have to find real jobs.
       Theroux's old-age preoccupations don't intrude too much on the book (he finally celebrates the big birthday in South Africa), though he sounds quite desperate on occasion:
The older traveler knows it best: in our hearts we are youthful, and we are insulted to be treated as old men and burdens, for we have come to know that the years have made us more powerful and streetwise. Years are not an affliction. Old age is strength.
       Along the way he is also working on an erotic novella, apparently about a younger man and older woman -- but thankfully he spares the reader too many details about that ongoing project.

       Theroux proposes his own test for the success of his narrative:
How nice it would be, I thought, if someone reading the narrative of my African trip felt the same, that it was the next best thing to being there -- or even better, because reading about being shot at and poisoned and insulted was in general less upsetting than the real thing.
       Certainly, Theroux removes all the hardship. Beyond some very cramped car and bus rides and a few nasty beds and the annoying beggars he doesn't complain about (or describe) very many real unpleasantries. Oh, right, he does get shot at, but even that doesn't sound quite as horrific as it probably should. No, remarkably, Theroux managed to write a book that isn't at all much like being there -- though it might very well be the sort of trip people want to take. There's almost nothing of the heat or the smells or the tastes or the constant slow going. Theroux's book zips along, but travel is slow -- and often boring. Theroux makes even the occasional waits go by fast. This is probably for the best -- much of travel is quite boring (and repetitive -- one bus ride much like the next) -- but it's surprising how little sense of the actual hardship of travel Theroux is able to convey.
       Dark Star Safari is, however, a very enjoyable read, and it does present a good picture of aspects of Africa. Focussing on people (and crumbling infrastructures) Theroux does point out much of the best and worst of Africa -- and also gives a good sense of the often forgotten fact that "Africa" is in fact made up of many very different nations and cultures. (It's unfortunate that it was a strictly eastern African trip; a comparison to Northern and Western Africa, including Francophone and more Arabic-speaking countries, would also have been of great interest.)
       As a quick glimpse of often neglected states -- Sudan, Ethiopia, Malawi, Uganda, Mozambique -- Dark Star Safari is of particular interest, but most importantly it's simply a good, entertaining read.

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Dark Star Safari: Reviews: Paul Theroux: Other books by Paul Theroux under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Paul Theroux has written almost two dozen novels and a number of excellent travel books, the most famous being The Great Railway Bazaar. He has taught in Uganda and Singapore, and he lived in England for a long time. Several of his books have been filmed (including The Mosquito Coast) and a TV series was made of his stories, The London Embassy and The Consul's Files.

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© 2003-2024 the complete review

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