I am in Lima, Peru this week and part of next, researching some issues in agriculture. Tommorrow I will drive 6 hours into the mountains and meet the â€œcampesinosâ€ who toil the land. So far Lima seems a study in contrasts, with the city center resembling Phoenix or Atlanta and the outer areas punctuated by such poverty and class-warfare that the police private declare some neighborhoods â€œno goâ€ zones. This is only my second trip in the past five years, where I did not visit somewhere in Africa. About 18 months ago I visited Shanghai and Beijing (and China for the first time), and this is my first visit to Peru â€“ and my first time anywhere in South America. In this trip, as with my China journey, I am finding much-needed perspective on the African situation, by seeing up close the experiences of a very different region.
Of course, for relaxation reading, I am reading about Africa. Why not? I took a battered copy of Paul Therouxâ€™s â€œDark Star Safariâ€ with me. The book, first published in 2003, has aged well. His random encounters, as he moves from Cairo through east and southern Africa, remain as trivial and non-essential as when he first wrote them. His more penetrating insight into black Africa, which come like bullets at the outset of the book, are elegantly written and capture some of the paradoxes of the current fascination with Africa in popular culture, and especially the movies.
Below are some of Therouxâ€™s best lines in the first 100 pages of the book. See if you can distinguish his moronic insights from the ones that matter:
â€œAll the news out of Africa is bad. It made me want to go there, though not for the horror, the hotspots, the massacre-and-earthquake stories you read in the newspaper; I wanted the pleasure of being in Africa again.â€
â€œAfrica is materially more decrepit than it was when I first knew it [40 years ago, in the early 1960s] â€“ hungrier, poorer, less educated, more pessimistic, more corrupt, and you canâ€™t tell the politicians from the witch doctors.â€
â€œAfricans, less esteemed than ever, seemed to me the most
lied-to people on Earth â€“ manipulated by their governments, burned by foreign experts, befooled by charities, and cheated at every turn.â€
â€œMost trains in Africa look as if they are on their way to Auschwitz â€¦.â€
Personally, I find Theroux dripping with contempt for ordinary Africans, and elites most flagrantly. I share some of his complaints about elites, though I consider the Aushwitz line a low blow â€“ but not the dumbest thing Theroux writes in â€œDark Star Safari.â€ The book is published at the height of the American governmentâ€™s lying about the Iraq war, and the war on terror generally. I can easily imagine substituting the Americans for Africans and writing: Americans are the most lied-to people on Earth — manipulated by their governments, burned by foreign experts, befooled by charities, and cheated at every turn. Therouxâ€™s biggest crime is hypocrisy. He seeks to debunk the low expectations of Africans by trading on these same low expectations. So he is really as bad as the people he complains about.