Overland from Cairo to Cape Town

By Paul Theroux

Houghton Mifflin. 472 pp. $28

Africa, because of its poverty, presumed hopelessness and racial overtones, is prone to elicit more sympathy than analysis. Indeed, given the dreadful legacy of slavery, Americans and Europeans have often journeyed to Africa, and written about it, to demonstrate their own humanist credentials. The result is that Africa may be less well-known than the African extensions of our own racial and national obsessions. As he explains in his new travel book, Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux went to Africa for a more matter-of-fact and politically ambiguous reason: Like the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who found in Ethiopia the ultimate anti-European, anti-Western place, Theroux likes Africa simply because "there [is] nothing of home here."

Riding bush taxis for months in places far from mobile phone towers and reliable electric current for cybercafe{acute}s, he was able to escape from the cushy tedium of his daily existence. "Who cares about the Nasdaq," he writes, "when shiftas [bandits] on the road between Addis Ababa and Nairobi will kill you for the shoes you are wearing?" His happiest moment was being stuck on the "shifta road" after a truck broke down, with no schedule to keep, passing the time drinking beer and helping a village woman peel potatoes while "talking about salvation."

Looked at another way, Theroux's journey to Africa was an act of pure integrity. Nearing his 60th birthday, he gave up the material comfort and social prestige of a well-known author in order to spend up to a year traveling alone, in some of the least comfortable parts of the world's poorest continent. His journey was also a homecoming: He had worked in Malawi as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1960s and afterward lived in Uganda. He went back for the "sweetness," he says, and partly to refute the horror stories about the continent he had read in newspapers. He came away a bit burned by the experience.

"Africa is materially more decrepit than it was when I first knew it," he writes, "hungrier, poorer, less educated, more pessimistic, more corrupt, and you can't tell the politicians from the witch doctors." It is also more urbanized. In discussing the disease growth of African cities, Theroux demonstrates how a traveler's finely wrought observations of people and landscape sometimes offer the best political and social analysis. He portrays these African "snake pits" as "miserably improvised ant-hills, attracting the poor and the desperate from the bush and turning them into thieves and devisers of cruel scams." "Scamming," he goes on, "is the survival mode in a city where tribal niceties do not apply and there are no sanctions except those of the police," a class of Africans for whom he has few kind words. In 2005, he notes, 75 percent of Africans will be living in such cities. As for the trains, he writes that "most trains in Africa look as if they are on their way to Auschwitz." Nevertheless, he boarded them, always with good humor.

Few recent books provide such a litany of Africa's ills, even as they make one fall in love with the continent. Theroux's descriptions are rarely neutral. They are either ugly and bitter, or beautiful and erotic: Watching a woman in the street in Khartoum untangle her gown from her stiletto heel, he sees "the filigree of dark henna all over her foot and her ankle and reaching up her leg . . . as though she were wearing the sexiest French tights."

Theroux's respect for individual Africans plays off against his documentation of social catastrophe: In his beloved Malawi, the Indian shops were gone and vandalized, and the end of Hasting Banda's dictatorship merely replaced political violence with civilian crime. Unfortunately, the individual honesty and friendliness he encountered on the road were simply insufficient to provide the social discipline for maintaining modern infrastructure such as railway systems, and for making cities and public spaces habitable. He notes that the tribal mores that allowed for a variant of civil society in African villages through the mid-20th century have been destroyed in the course of urban migration. And because the deeper the dissolution, the more extreme the corrective, it appears that social discipline in Africa is now most effectively reemerging in the form of Islamic fundamentalism, as religion is reinvented in starker, more ideological form to meet the challenges of urban existence. Such new and rigid group identities -- replacing the more fluid tribal ones -- are a factor in the north-south splits bedeviling places such as Nigeria and the Ivory Coast.

Rather than adequately flesh out these and other issues, though, Theroux rails against one of the early messengers of the bad news: his former friend V. S. Naipaul, whose "contempt" for Africa is, in Theroux's words, the result of Naipaul's "insecurity" as an ethnic-Indian "outsider who feels weak." Yet the insecurity felt by an economic middleman-minority such as the ethnic Indians in East Africa and the Caribbean, the Lebanese in West Africa and the Jews in Eastern Europe often provides an acute vantage point for perceiving trouble ahead. Despised peoples acquire a tragic premonition about the human condition that others lack. Naipaul's books of a generation ago uncannily intuited the continent's decline, a decline that Theroux nowhere in his book denies. His unnecessary tirade against Naipaul makes for the weakest part of a relentlessly engaging narrative. In fact, it demonstrates Theroux's own limits at insight.

Theroux is best at shorthand dissections of trends that have already become obvious. In no other book will one find such entertaining and penetrating comments about the ironies, as well as the historic failure, of foreign aid. In an earlier age, he writes, Westerners "would have been businessmen or soldiers or visiting politicians or academics. But this was an era of charity in Africa, where the business of philanthropy was paramount." Like other kinds of businessmen far from home, the aid workers subsidize an army of prostitutes. "Wherever the expatriate economy was strong in African countries -- the aid-heavy economies in Addis, Nairobi, Kampala, Lilongwe, and Maputo -- there was prostitution, usually pretty girls dressed in peculiarly Western fashion to attract expatriates -- the bankers, the aid experts, the charity bureaucrats. There was no mystery to this. The prostitutes followed the money."

In the course of his travels, the author describes one foreign-assistance stupidity after the other, comparing the bigger projects to "inspired Christmas presents, the sort that stop running when the batteries die." He admits that while he and others have been -- and will be -- "enriched by the experience of working in Africa, nothing at all would change as a result. Only Africans were capable of making a difference in Africa."

Theroux is no reactionary, or even a conservative, as he reveals elsewhere in the narrative; he simply won't tolerate easy truths or sanctimony. He reserves his greatest and most hilarious vitriol for the missionaries he meets. As he tells an earnest young Western proselytizer on a train in Mozambique, "Stop calling these poor people sinners. As if they haven't got enough to worry about!"

Despising the ability of people to be transported overnight by plane from New York to the middle of Africa "to gape at gorillas," Theroux believes you can know a place only by "scuttling past razor wire" at the frontiers. Having paid bribes and dealt with drunken and drug-crazed soldiers at land borders in both West and East Africa, this reviewer can only concur. It is the getting there that reveals the truth. And the most fundamental truth of Dark Star Safari is that Africa is too vast and intractable ever to be socially and politically engineered by outsiders, no matter their good intentions. To wit, the author tells of three FBI agents, in Nairobi to investigate the 1998 American embassy bombings, who were relieved of their wallets and pistols by local pickpockets.

Having just been robbed himself in Johannesburg, Theroux nevertheless managed to be upbeat. The "kindest Africans had not changed at all" in the four decades since he lived there, he writes, and "the best of them" were still "bare-assed." * Robert D. Kaplan, a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, is the author of many books, including "The Ends of the Earth" and "The Coming Anarchy."