THE LIFE OF MY CHOICE
By Wilfred Thesiger
Norton. 459 pp. $25
AT THE AGE of 77 Wilfred Thesiger can look back upon a life quite beyond what most of us can imagine. Born in the summer of 1910 in Addis Ababa, "the first British child born in Abyssinia," he was the son of the minister at the British Legation to that country, and from almost the moment of his birth he entered into a love affair with northeastern Africa that has, if anything, intensified over the years. Though educated at Eton and Oxford, he forsook the tame comforts of white civilization for a life of adventure and discovery among Africans and Arabs, finding "close friendship with individuals . . . most easily among races other than my own."
The Life of My Choice is Thesiger's account of his years in Africa and, more briefly, the Middle East. The memoir was a best- seller in Britain, perhaps because it evokes memories of the days when the Union Jack flew triumphant at outposts throughout the world. But it will be surprising if American readers, even those in whom Masterpiece Theater has stirred longings for the Raj, give the book a similar welcome. Thesiger may have led an interesting life, but The Life of My Choice is only intermittingly an interesting book. Too often it is merely a plodding recitation of unfamiliar names and places, as this all-too-typical paragraph attests:
"We left Malakal at the end of December 1937 and sailed upstream past the confluence with the Sobat, which, rising in Abyssinia, joined the White Nile near the town. When we came to Lake No, an insignificant stretch of water ringed by papyrus swamp, we had arrived on the edge of the Western Nuer District. Upstream of Lake No the White Nile, known there as the Bahr al Jabal, formed our eastern boundary almost as far south as Shambe, a hundred and fifty miles away. At the lake it was joined from the west by the Bahr al Ghazal, which lay without our district as far upstream as Mashra al Req; the Bahr al Ghazal in turn was joined from the west by the Bahr al Arab. North of the Bahr at Ghazal, beyond the ill-defined boundary with Kordofan, were the Nuba mountains."
No doubt you had to be there. But since you weren't, you're likely to find Thesiger's interminable account more stupefying than entertaining or edifying; there's plenty of sand in The Life of My Choice, but it takes more than sand to make Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Thesiger's problem is that he knows how to accumulate facts but not how to tell a story; though dramatic events occur from time to time in his narrative, he somehow manages to drain all the drama from them. Even the Abyssinian campaign against Mussolini's forces, in which Thesiger played a role of some significance, is just one trek among many. Doubtless Thesiger is a gentleman to the core, but a bracing dash of ungentlemanly spice would do wonders for his dutiful prose, and it really wouldn't hurt to let a trifle more personal feeling into the story; it is, after all, his own story.
But we must take Thesiger on Thesiger's terms, and the reader who is willing to do so will find two good reasons for suffering through the long dry periods of his narrative. The first of these is his deep love for Africa and its people, which he manages to convey notwithstanding his reticence. Though from time to time he shoulders the white man's burden, by and large his affection for the people of Africa is unencumbered by racial prejudice or condescension. "I undoubtedly had a feeling of superiority," he writes, "since my father was the British minister and I was his son. This feeling, however, certainly did not include color prejudice, which is something I have never felt. Esthetically, I regard white as the least attractive color for skin." Indeed, his affection for Africa is such that it occasionally even inspires him to a fit of vivid prose. Here, for example, is his portrait of Addis Ababa during his boyhood:
"The clothes, the buildings, the pitch and intonation of voices speaking Amharic; the smell of rancid butter, of red peppers and burning cow dung that permeated the town; the packs of savage dogs that roamed the streets and whose howling rose and fell through the night; an occasional corpse hanging on the gallows-tree; beggars who had lost a hand or foot for theft; debtors and creditors wandering round chained together; strings of donkeys bringing in firewood; caravans of mules; the crowded market where men and women squatted on the ground, selling earthen pots, lengths of cloths, skins, cartridges, bars of salt, silver ornaments, heaps of grain, vegetables, beer -- all this combined to create a scene and an atmosphere unlike any other in the world."
The other reason for reading The Life of My Choice is Thesiger's self-portrait; if he is short on emotion, he is long on candor. From boyhood he had "a life-long craving for barbaric splendor, for savagery and color and the throb of drums, and . . . a lasting veneration for long-established custom and ritual, from which would derive later a deep-seated resentment of Western innovations in other lands, and a distaste for the drab uniformity of the modern world." At Oxford he "had a romantic, not an objective, conception of history; Alexander the Great was foremost among my heroes, Montrose was the leader I would most gladly have followed, John Knox was my particular aversion." What we have here, in other words, is that classic paradox: a man of quintessential British reserve who is at the same time "highly impressionable and incurably romantic," and who has remained that way into old age -- just as Lawrence would have had he lived that long.
FOR THESIGER no force is more powerful than "the lure of the unexplored, the compulsion to go where others had not been." He permits himself a rare moment of passion when, as a young man, he treks through deserts and hills to the previously unexplored Aussa Sultanate: "As I looked round the clearing at the ranks of squatting warriors and the small isolated group of my own men, I knew that this moonlight meeting in unknown Africa with a savage potentate who hated Europeans was the realization of my boyhood dreams . . . . The knowledge that somewhere in this neighborhood three previous expeditions had been exterminated, that we were far beyond any hope of assistance, that even our whereabouts were unknown, I found wholly satisfying."
There is ample material here for the parlor psychologist, just as there is in Thesiger's enthusiastic belief "that most men have an inborn desire to hunt and kill" and in the pleasure he takes in "the sound of the bullet striking home and a clean kill"; but that I shall leave to others along with Thesiger's happy asceticism ("Sex has been of no great consequence to me, and the celibacy of desert life left me untroubled. Marriage would certainly have been a crippling handicap"). Suffice it to say that he is a man from another era, a traveler on foot in the era of the automobile and airplane, and that he did a better job of living his life than of telling it. ::