Dark Star Safari trails Paul Theroux's African adventure starting from Cairo and ending in Cape Town in a witty, observing and often irascible tone. The journey is spread with danger, pain, adrenaline, disappointment and dismaying circumstances. The traveler gets a taste of everything life in Africa means, from history and politics to health care, education, poverty and decay. He gets in contact with people of various nationalities, belonging to various social classes and activating in various fields, managing to get a glimpse of their own perspective on things before clarifying his own.
Diversity is the word that describes the experience best, and it can be found in all the elements of the trip, from the means of transportation used (cattle truck, rattletrap bus, dugout canoe, ferry, armed convoy, bush taxi and train) to the places visited, the food eaten and the people met along the way.
But things are not all gourmet food and juicy stories, and danger lures at every corner. Theroux faces threats of all kinds, from the armed Somali highwaymen in Kenya (119) to the Mozambique land mines (346). He is surrounded by beggars, disease and filth, and provides very detailed and suggestive descriptions of the situations he finds himself in.
Thus, the reader gets to picture the runny nose man selling snot-smeared oranges, the dirt, the filth and the litter favoring fungal infections, mocking lepers, petty extortions, dreary bedrooms, altered food and bowel problems. What started like a pleasurable journey turns into a real nightmare, as the traveler gets to experience abuses, fear, stranding, harassment, cheating, bites, flooding, insults, exhaustion, robbery, lies, browbeating, poisoning, stinking and starving.
The journey is definitely not something readers would ever care to duplicate, and the author himself seems to be miserable most of the time. His adventure, however, remains captivating, because he does not just take note of what is going on around him, but responds as well. He berates the beggar in Malawi demanding him why he asks for a handout instead of asking for work (329) and he confronts the American aid workers passing by who refuse him the ride when the truck he was travelling with is stalled for repairs (146).
In fact, Theroux develops an obvious antipathy towards aid workers, sustaining the idea that that foreign aid are just a façade for corruption and compromise local initiative. His attitude reveals a certain anger, the aid workers being just ''oafish self-dramatizing prigs'' that only manage to aggravate the problems of the African people.
The trains the aid workers took so much pride in do not follow the schedule or do not run at all, the roads and the buildings are decaying by the day. Coffin-building and trading seem to be the only profitable businesses here. The author sees and describes Kenya as a terminally ill country and Mozambique as the haunted image of a dark distant future, a glimpse of the end of the world (347).
But Africa has its strong points as well, and its southern part seems to be one of them, maybe the only one escaping the author's criticism. Although known as a "political mayhem", the town of Harare is perceived as safe and orderly, Theroux describing it as the most pleasant African city he had seen so far (352).
The Zimbabwean farmers also win his appreciation for their positive attitude (474), the author suggesting that this attitude should be shared by all black Africans. Another character worthy of the traveler's appreciation is Peter Drummond (352), who offers him food and shelter in his farm. Drummond is struggling some African squatters trying to dispossess him. Theroux himself visits one of the squatters and is simply disgusted with the man's pleas, comparing him with a thief who, after stealing a coat, expects it to be dry-cleaned and tailored by the very man he stole it from.
The traveler does not take interest in the tumultuous history of colonial land appropriation lying behind the president Robert Mugabe's demagogic land-grab. His observation capacity seems to be diminished by indignation. His indignation even gains physical symptoms, and the best illustration for that is the night of the dinner party, when an African bureaucrat's excuses for Malawi's poverty irritate him so much that he feels as is experiencing the symptoms of an illness (325).
One cannot help but wonder: what drives Theroux to write this book and what lies beyond his unexpected reactions? It is obvious that he takes things personally, since he is not just dismayed by Africa, but really enraged? As Theroux himself notices, travel writing starts as journalism, continues with fiction and ends up as autobiography, and his book is the perfect illustration of this idea.
Africa is not just the land Theroux explores, but the very place of his start out, four decades earlier, when he began his career as a Peace Corps teacher, later moving on to the position of university lecturer. He wrote and placed his first novels in Africa, and because he was happy here, and he learned to see the wilderness and possibilities beyond the perils, he gets angry when faced with the new side of things, with a place where happiness and prosperity are no longer an option.
Dark Star Safari militates against returning to a place where you were once happy and successful, not only through the author's reactions, but through the very images portrayed. The old school in Malawi is ''almost unrecognizable'', a mere ghost, the ruin of the institution it used to be: broken windows, empty library, no memories of the past and no respect for those who laid the foundation of everything (315).
Upon his return, Theroux is disappointed not only by the condition the school is in, but also by the African principle's attitude. The man has no time and interest to waste on the newcomer, and everyone seems to have forgotten about the past. The graves of the English couple that used to run the school in the past are now covered in weeds, and trapped in a horrifying present, no one seems willing to remember the past. By clearing the weeds from the graves, Theroux manifests his desperate need to revive the past, his rage for growing old and unable to bring things back to the way they were or make them better.
The whole book boasts of rage at the neglect and especially at the forgetting obvious everywhere. The writer turns 60 while on the road and he is more than tetchy about it. He furiously denies being retired, he despises the word and associates it with surrender (199). He considers the honorific Swahili term "mzee" an insult and often challenges Africans to estimate his age in the hope or certitude that they would guess he is younger. Theroux's obsession about his age and growing old is slightly grotesque considering life expectancy in the region. Even when he visits Nadine Gordimer, the South African novelist approaching 80, with a dying 90 years old husband, he still worries that she would find him old (386).
The book is rather gloomy, dominated by an obsession for ruin and oblivion. Throughout the African journey, he reads the book ''Heart of Darkness'' several times (13, to be more precise), and Shelley's ''Ozymandias'' famous line – "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" (77) often prevents him from fully enjoying his accomplishments.
Slowly but surely, his initial dream of vanishing in Africa, a mere reaction against a busy daily routine, turns into a symbolic exploration of deeper waters. When engaging on his trip, Theroux himself had no idea of what would follow. He discovers Africa while writing about it, and he begins to get a grasp of his own feelings and obsessions as they start pouring on the paper.
Theroux, Paul. Dark Star Safari. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004. Print.