I’ve been on some shitty trips.
To be more accurate, I’ve had some really shitty parts of trips. Laying on a slightly dirty mattress watching CSI in Prishtina, Kosovo, Paul Theroux’s central question of his latest memoir rang through my head: What am I doing here?
(Answer: it’s P’s fault, but that’s another story)
In a last trip back to the African bush, Theroux attempts to complete the west coast of a journey he took many years ago, documented in Dark Star Safari. Having taught for six years in Malawi, traveled extensively throughout the world, Theroux is excited by the symmetry of the task – to complete something it seems his whole life has been building toward.
His goal is to travel alone, overland from South Africa to Timbuktu, mirroring the Cairo to Capetown trip of his past. He attempts to confront the task with excitement, but even from the first line you can tell he’s tired.
My main motivation “was physically to get away form people wasting my time with trivia. ‘I believe that the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things,’ Theoreau wrote.”
Theroux is no longer young, and despite his grumbles, seems to really enjoy the four-star comfort his literary stardom and connections get him (as the book jacket states, the man lives in Cape Cod AND Hawaii – come on!).
While there are gems throughout, as Theroux is undoubtedly an intelligent, well-honed observer, the drudgery he encounters becomes less and less enjoyable to read. Rather than encounter difference, or unique situations, he seems to encounter over and over and over again, the shambles globalization has made of his remembered Africa.
He bemoans loss of traditional wear for Western cast-offs, mud huts for cheap Chinese cinderblock houses, and most pivotal, bush life overall for a move into a city slum. Theroux finds little to no hope in improvement projects either – whether local or international. He gives some people their due, but concludes that the Sisyphean task will never be accomplished. As he quotes an Angolan he meets: “This is what the world will look like when it ends.”
“My purpose in making this wonderful journey is not to delude myself but to discover myself in the objects I see… Nothing, above all, is comparable to the new life that a reflective person experiences when he observes a new country. Though I am still always myself, I believe I have been changed to the very marrow of my bones.”
In the end, Theroux seems to come to the conclusion that although he truly identifies as a traveler, the pure struggle he sees in this quest is just too overwhelming:
“I ask the political economists and the moralists if they have ever calculated the number of individuals who must be condemned to misery, overwork, demoralization, childhood, rank ignorance, overwhelming misfortune and utter penury in order to produce one rich man.”
Despite my issues with his personality and some of the judgements he rendered as he passed through this particular journey, Theroux’s life of travel and memory remain resonate.
I truly understand the facets of discovery that continue to inspire him to reach beyond himself and question his place in this world – a truly admirable feat especially at his crotchety age.
“Reading and restlessness – dissatisfaction at home, a sourness at being indoors, and a notion that the real world was elsewhere – made me a traveler. If the Internet were everything it is cracked up to be, we would all stay home and be brilliantly witty and insightful…My ideal traveler is the person who goes the old, laborious way into the unknown, and it is this belief that lies behind my travel and drives me. I want to see things as they are, to see myself as I am.”