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Paul Theroux - Dark Star Safari

Friday 30 August 2013, 11:34

Jim Naughtie Jim Naughtie Jim Naughtie presents Bookclub on BBC Radio 4

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Editor's note: This episode of Bookclub is available on Sunday 1st Septmber and will be available to listen online or for download.

Paul Theroux Paul Theroux

I imagine many of you have the same feeling as I do, that I can’t remember whether I first encountered Paul Theroux on The Old Patagonian Express or in The Great Railway Bazaar. It hardly matters. These books, which made him a star by the seventies, were not only a compendium of rattling good stories of life on the road, with the freshness of a writer who was obsessed by new experiences, but a contribution to one of the great traditions. Like Jan Morris – one of my own favourite writers - his evocation of place, and the adventure of getting there, has the diamond sparkle of the fresh-faced explorer determined to find new sounds and colours round every corner, and to encounter different people.

When we met with this month’s readers in Broadcasting House it was no surprise to me to find that one of his cherished writers is Robert Louis Stevenson, and not only because Stevenson ended his life in the South Pacific, where he’d gone to alleviate his chronic ill-health, and where Paul has had a home for many years. In my excitement I even managed to misquote the epitaph of Tusitala – the local word for ‘a teller of tales’, with which they anointed him on the island where he died – and got the last lines the wrong way round. For the record, they are – “home is the sailor, home from sea/and the hunter home from the hill”. That makes me feel a little better. Paul is an enthusiast for Stevenson not only because of the superb crispness and economy of his writing (often undervalued because of his brilliant ability to write for children), but because of that feeling for the traveller’s life and the satisfaction of eventual rest. Whether in Edinburgh, the Pyrenees, the South Seas, or in the wilderness of his imagination, Stevenson was always infected by the excitement of a journey, and the business of getting there. It was appropriate, therefore, that in talking about Paul’s Dark Star Safari we were able to look back on his own writing life from its beginning.

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Paul Theroux responds to a reader who suggests he can come across as grumpy.

The book is his account of a return to Africa, beginning just before 9/11, nearly forty years after he first arrived on the continent as a young American inspired by Kennedy’s volunteer Peace Corps (JFK had been murdered a month before Paul travelled to the African school where he’d teach). His reaction, second time around, was quite different. In his journey from Cairo to Cape Town, replete with the kinds of encounters that have enlivened all his books, he experience feelings of anxiety, even despair, about aspects of the “new” Africa – worries about the “wrong” kind of aid, corruption and the sort of westernisation that destroys some valuable social customs in the name of progress. Some of his reflections are indeed dark.

But they’re lifted by the experience of encountering a new kind of Africa, the sheer exhilaration of coming across townships where everyone carries a mobile phone but has a traditional knife, perhaps a machete, in the other hand. He describes the difference of Africa with the same freshness as he brought to his earliest travels in India and South America, and his journey is peopled by characters who never seem contrived or put together from predetermined caricatures. The discussion with our readers, who included quite a number who were either born in Africa or had long experience of the continent, therefore turned – as it had to – to the nature of the writer who enjoys the business of travel.

Paul, of course, has become a distinguished novelist, but it is about his character as a traveller that we talked most. He made two striking points. Writing about travel, he said, meant being gregarious – enjoying the unexpected encounter, and throwing yourself into every community that you discover along the way – but it also helped to be a solitary individual, even sometimes a lonely one. The two go together – a joy in being alone, and a relish for the new friend or the strange passer-by.

Our conversation was sometimes serious, but never gloomy. One reader confessed that she had expected him to be a rather downbeat person, even dour. She was pleased to find that she was wrong. For myself, I had my expectations confirmed. Paul Theroux is funny, wise and sometimes sad. And I thought of him, at the end of a day on the road, writing his reflections in longhand and filling his notebooks – an uplifting thought.

I hope you enjoy the programme.

Our next book is the great Bring Up the Bodies the Man Booker-winning second part of Hilary Mantel’s account of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII. And you may be interested in upcoming recordings, for which you can apply for (free!) places as a reader, via the programme website – Matthew Hollis and his Costa-winning life of Edward Thomas (All Roads Lead to France) and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, both in October, and in November Donna Tartt on her extraordinary best-selling and cult novel, The Secret History.

Happy reading


Listen to Paul Theroux discussing Dark Star Safari on Bookclub

Editor's note: This episode of Bookclub is available to listen online or for download, and a repeat can be heard on BBC Radio 4, Thursday 8th August, 3.30pm.

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