America’s master traveler (Fresh Air Fiend, 2000, etc.) takes us along on his wanderings in tumultuous bazaars, crowded railway stations, desert oases, and the occasional nicely appointed hotel lobby.
“All news of out Africa is bad,” Theroux gamely begins. “It made me want to go there.” Forty years after making his start as a writer while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi, he returns for a journey from Cairo to Cape Town along “what was now the longest road in Africa, some of it purely theoretical.” More reflective and less complaining than some of his other big-tour narratives (e.g., The Happy Isles of Oceania, 1992), Theroux’s account finds him in the company of Islamic fundamentalists and dissidents, sub-Saharan rebels and would-be neocolonialists, bin Ladenites, and intransigent white landholders, almost all of them angry at America for one reason or another. The author shares their anger at many points. Of the pharmaceutical plant outside Khartoum that was flattened by a cruise missile on Bill Clinton’s orders a few years back, he remarks, “Though we become hysterical at the thought that someone might bomb us, bombs that we explode elsewhere, in little countries far away, are just theater, of small consequence, another public performance of our White House, the event factory.” Such sentiments are rarely expressed in post–9/11 America, and Theroux is to be commended for pointing out the consequences of our half-baked imperializing in Africa’s miserable backwaters. His criticisms cut both ways, however; after an Egyptian student offends him with the remark, “Israel is America’s baby,” he replies, “Many countries are America’s babies. Some good babies, some bad babies.” Theroux is often dour, although he finds hopeful signs that Africa will endure and overcome its present misfortunes in the sight, for instance, of a young African boatman doing complex mathematical equations amid “spitting jets of steam,” and in the constant, calming beauty of so many African places.
Engagingly written, sharply observed: another winner from Theroux.