French colonialism goes awry in a saga of hope, betrayal, slaughter and cannibalism in 19th-century North Africa.
British desert explorer and Morocco resident Asher (Khartoum: The Ultimate Imperial Adventure, 2008, etc.) tracks the French government’s ambitious plan to build a railroad from Algiers to Timbuctoo (as it was spelled in those days). The Trans-Saharan Railway was intended not so much to carry human passengers as to convey French commercial goods into the vast markets of African nations and return with exotic natural resources to be shipped to Paris. Not so incidentally, the railroad’s planners expected that it would speed the spread of French morality among the Sahara Desert’s tribes, whom they viewed as benighted heathens. In 1880, Paul Flatters led a mission into the populated portion of Algeria and from there into the desert to map the proposed railway route. A veteran of the French Army of Africa, Flatters craved renown and saw this as his chance: “The man who led the Trans-Saharan survey mission would go down in history as the last of the great Saharan explorers.” Flatters felt certain he could negotiate with nomadic tribes that controlled the desert, even though the Tuareg in particular were known for their hostility to interlopers on their land. His naiveté cost him and dozens in his party their lives; on February 16, 1881, more than 300 Tuareg warriors attacked the expedition. Asher builds the tension slowly but inexorably toward this climactic battle, during which Flatters was murdered. It occurs slightly before the book’s midpoint; after that, the narrative devolves into a gruesome account of the survivors’ struggles against thirst and starvation as well as lethal tribesmen. The agony was relentless as they dragged themselves toward safety, their camels stolen or dead. The survivors’ desperate resort to cannibalism will horrify, but not surprise, readers.
Not for the faint of heart, the faint of stomach or those put off by relentless descriptions of battle scenes.