Though I’ve heard great things about Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari was the first by him that I’ve read – well, listened to actually. Thanks to our current location in Chicago and the locations of our respective families, the holidays involve a lot of driving for Mrs. Millions and me – 36 hours worth this year if my math is correct. One of the best ways to pass the time is with audiobooks and even though Mrs. Millions got me XM Radio this year, Dark Star Safari was so engaging that we spent a lot of our trip listening to it. It’s a shame that the audio version appears to be unavailable (we got ours from the library) because it was very well done. Norman Deitz, as narrator, is very much in character as Theroux, and he gamely contorts his voice when relating the dialog of the many men and women of various nationalities that Theroux meets on his way from Cairo to Capetown. Though Africa is the centerpiece of this book, Theroux shares top billing. As he explains, this trip, very much a solo journey, was a return to the continent where he lived 40 years ago as a young Peace Corps volunteer and teacher. He soon finds that a lot of Africa has changed and not for the better. Much of the book is devoted to finding out why. We learn a lot about Africa’s history and geography and we meet dozens of fascinating people along the way from Nobel Laureates to prostitutes. But Theroux, writing in his 60s and having earned the right to hold forth on such things, dwells most upon his likes and dislikes. He does not like most of the aid workers in Africa and he explains, rather convincingly, why the aid system is broken. He does not like proselytizing missionaries, with whom he gleefully argues theology. He does not like Africa’s sprawling, destitute, dangerous cities. Theroux, however, likes the “bush,” the great trackless stretches of Africa where people still live simply, uncorrupted by foreign aid and oppressive governments. Of the people he meets, Theroux likes the straight-talkers, the honest people who care about Africa and aren’t trying to get something from him. Though Theroux spends a lot of time analyzing the current state of Africa in his own engaging, non-technical way, the enormity of his journey was what made the book so enjoyable for me. He travels by every method imaginable in a meandering path from Egypt to South Africa. Along the way he is shot at by bandits, harassed by border guards and harangued by Africa’s urban predators. Theroux acknowledges the similarities of his travels with those of many Westerners before him, but he does not slip into romanticism or despair. He loves Africa for its chaos.
Mrs. Millions sent me a nice email yesterday (from the other room – funny how we communicate) that she thought I might want to share on the blog. It touches on the many things that reading can offer beyond just the story itself.And since Mrs. Millions puts up with all the time I spend on the blog, she gets to post here as much as she likes. Here’s what she wrote:I recently started a full-time job. Prior to this I had relished a very irregular schedule, taking on projects, doing freelance design work, and teaching on the side. It was a juggling act but gave me many different avenues to pursue. Now I am getting accustomed to a more regular schedule. My life is a busy sequence of days, and will remain so until I adapt. Because I am continuing a couple of projects I had begun prior to taking this job, it feels as though I am unable to complete anything. Things which remain undone are very troubling – I think about them when I am not working on them, spending time worrying when I could otherwise be productive. And so, each day, I head to work, knowing that I will return home tired, and be unable to complete the other things that, at times, I would much rather be doing.Last night, however, I accomplished something. I finished reading The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux. For me, finishing a book is usually a little sad. I don’t have a queue of books staring at me, and once I get to know a character or a place, I don’t like to leave them behind. When I get to the end of a book, well, I’ll read only a single page in a sitting, just to keep it from ending. I’ll even reread the last page or two over and over. So, there I was, awake late a couple of nights ago, giving in to reading the last few sentences, thinking about the journey that is The Old Patagonian Express, trying to keep the story from ending.The Old Patagonian Express is a wonderful story, without a moral or a murder or a message, other than having a definite path and destination. For Theroux, it’s Patagonia via railroad starting in Boston and traveling far far south through cities, villages and past singular train stations that are nothing more than a wooden platform in the middle of seemingly nothing. Theroux is true to his goal, and is enviably determined and able to achieve it. His sticks to the course, deviating only for Borges (but who wouldn’t change their plans to have the chance to read to Borges?). Time is a major theme in the book – train schedules, waiting, rushing, riding. Time, for me, is so finite when I set goals for myself. And it’s so easy to fail when all I look at is the time. But life isn’t about time, it’s about all the things that come and go and make life interesting and exciting.So, after finishing the book, I realized that I needed to be less time-obsessed. This I can claim to attribute to Theroux, but that would be false. My husband, Max, is the person who gave me this book to read. And in reading it dutifully a few pages each night, I finished it, felt satisfied, happy, and knew that my day had been a good one because I had completed something. Thank you, Max, for helping me to slow down and be successful. I’m ready for my next book.Thanks, Mrs. Millions! Ain’t she a sweetheart! I’ve given her A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin to read next. Hopefully, it can offer a similarly sublime experience.I should have also mentioned: I was inspired to get this book in the first place by Andrew’s post, Travel Writing by Train.
A few of the twentieth century Russian history books that I’ve read have touched on a detachment of Czech soldiers who were stranded in Russia after World War I. The Bolshevik Revolution soon followed and the soldiers remained stranded, thousands of miles from home. The soldiers who numbered as many as 40,000 and were stretched out along the length of the Trans-Siberian were, according to John Keegan in his history of World War I under the sway of an anti-Bolshevik officer and were “both in a position and soon in a mood to deny the use of the railway to anyone else.” In his novel, The People’s Act of Love, James Meek drops into to the town of Yazyk amongst a stranded group of these Czech soldiers. In a book of many protagonists, the point of view of Lieutenant Mutz, one of those Czech soldiers, is the most reliable. Mutz, who mostly wants to return home after years in Siberia is surrounded by a collection of eccentrics. Anna Petrovna, the woman who Mutz would like to escape with, is restive and noncommittal. Mutz’s boss Matula is a vicious young man drunk on the power he wields over the small backwater that his soldiers occupy. Yazyk is also home to mystical sect of castrati who lurk through the town like ghosts. But the catalyst for much the book’s action is Samarin, an escaped prisoner who claims he is being chased by a cannibal. Meek ably handles these characters and many others as he crafts a story that feels both otherworldly and historically accurate. The novel was longlisted for the Booker and is engagingly dense and action-filled – worthwhile for any reader but a must for anyone interested in Russian literature or history. Meek himself is not Russian. He’s British, formerly a journalist, the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent for many years.