Travels with My Angst; Books: Critic's Choice

Article excerpt


DARK STAR SAFARI by Paul Theroux (Hamish Hamilton, pound sterling17.99)

AT THE age of 61, carrying only a small weekend bag with two shirts and a toothbrush inside, the great travel writer Paul Theroux set off on the overland route from Cairo to Cape Town.

He must have experienced a slight feeling of 'here we go again' as he touched down in Egypt. This is Theroux's ninth epic journey with a book at the end of it.

In the 20 years since his brilliant classic The Great Railway Bazaar, in which he travelled by train from London to Japan and back again by way of India and Siberia, Theroux has made journeys across South America, China, the Pacific and around the rim of the Mediterranean.

Overland across Africa was virtually the last missing piece.

Any new Theroux is a thrill. Personally, I am incapable of passing a pile of his new books without buying one, such is the pleasure they have given me over the years. You can become addicted to his curious, sneering, smart aleck tone.

books are alike in some ways: he rattles around the world by bus and train, sometimes communicative, sometimes not, describing what he sees and recording his conversations with the locals.

As the journeys unfold, and loneliness and frustrations kick in, he becomes increasingly petulant and belligerent.

Travelling with Paul Theroux invariably involves an interior journey through the Dark Continent of his head, as well as the physical journey through foreign lands.

Dark Star Safari may be his most curmudgeonly book to date. There were moments, it must be said, when I longed to tell him: 'Go home. Go home to your new, young wife. What do you think you are achieving, skulking around Africa in a strop?' But, of course, Theroux is there for an excellent purpose: he is making the sacrifice for us, the reader, so we don't make the mistake of undertaking the same trip ourselves.

If I had the job of promoting African tourism, this book would make me bury my head in my hands and weep. Theroux's Africa is corrupt and ignorant, disease-ridden, violent and deteriorating.

In months on the road, he meets scarcely one person he likes or admires.

The hotels are filthy, officials dishonest, wild animals threatened with imminent extinction.

If it wasn't all so well written, you would be tempted to give up and walk away. …