I think Paul Theroux expected to find Africa had deteriorated since he last lived there in the 1960s and he is not wrong, so the book has a feeling of being a fait accompli before you have even got very far into it. Having said that, he does raise awareness of some key points regarding the interaction between trade and aid. Firstly if aid projects are a regular occurance in an area then the area becomes economically dependent and there are no incentives for the local populace to improve their own lives: if an aid project is discontinued they can be pretty certain that another will be along shortly to replace it. The "aid business" also loses sight of its aims: they know the project will fail once they have left so lose the will to come up with anything more innovative than spoon-feeding the local population. Aid projects are doomed to fail anyway if the national government doesn't act to reduce corruption and allow businesses and farms to flourish without confiscating any output they make over a subsistence level. (Tim Haford's "Undercover Economist" describes this in more detail). Throughout this book Theroux is pretty angry: he dislikes the western tourists who come on safari trips for not seeing "the real Africa", though he eventually relents and thoroughly enjoys a game-watching trip; he regards the multi-national charities as leeches and the born again Christian missionaries as dangerous and destructive to local communities. The downside is that he adopts a hectoring tone to repeatadly put the same points across; I agree with him that NGOs and churches are more interested in enriching the Mercedes dealerships of Nairobi than doing anything productive but repeating this point in every chapter reduces Theroux to the level of a fire-and-brimstone preacher. Just give us the facts Paul, and maybe a few ideas on what needs to change to improve Africa rather than just belittling others.
This is a tricky one to rate. Dark Star Safari’s big plus is its honesty. You get Paul Theroux’s usual super high level of literary crafting combined with what is probably a very truthful insight into Africa. But in answer to the question---Is it a 'good read'? Unfortunately my answer must to be “No” simply because I didn’t finish it! And the reason I didn’t finish it is that it just got TOO depressing. Writing this a few months after putting it down, my overwhelming recollection is an impression of a continent littered with western vanity charity projects, now long since ended and left in ruins and a book peppered with stories of the corruption which blights so much of the underdeveloped world. It may well be that I have been left with a realistic impression. I’m not saying that depressing, truthful literature isn’t a good thing. All of us need to be given a regular prod to remind us of the paradise we really live in (only this morning I dithered for ages as to precisely which colour to paint my kitchen … how lucky am I?). But there’s no reason why a book can’t be honest and still be gripping. For want of an analogy, the film Schindler’s List was highly depressing but that didn’t mean I could get up off the sofa. The problem I had with Dark Star Safari is that it just made me miserable, it didn’t grip me as well. It was depressing and slippery ... it slipped right out of my hands.
Hearing Theroux on the radio discussing this book and his travels I could relate to his experiences in Africa. So had to obtain a copy to see how he viewed his travels.
Whilst he followed another route than my own travels it was interesting to read his reactions on returning to his old school in Malawi - the decay, the sadness, for both the school and also recognition that his experience had embedded in his memory was no longer "live". The entry onto a river trip in Southern Africa totally distant from all shores of western existence is an experience we should all try to achieve at least once in our lives. To extend the metaphor those experiences become an anchor to ones humanity.
Overland? Well not quite. He missed the delights of Wadi Halfa. Nile Perch and chips anyone?
To me, Paul Theroux came across as an arrogant, annoying person. Rude about fellow travellers (calling an asthmatic, gasping Jade), repetitive and mentions the erotic novel he's writing far too often, even quoting a very bad piece from it. I did like some of the description of landscape and I found lots of the characters he meets very interesting. The best bit of writing in it was a quote from a book written by Nadine Gordimer!