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Little light in the heart of darkness

After 40 years, Paul Theroux returns to Africa where he began writing

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"Safari," in Swahili, has little to do with goggling at big animals; it simply means "journey," a word used to say someone is far away. This, writes Paul Theroux, in the opening to his latest travel book, is exactly why he came to Africa: to escape a life infested with e-mail and cell phones - all the pinging, buzzing ways one can be easily located. "I was in such regular touch," he writes, "it was like having a job, a mode of life I hate."

Theroux could have cut himself off just as well in Switzerland. Africans, already on the margins of the world's attention, don't want to disappear any further. It was by choice that Theroux didn't walk into an Internet cafe in a cell-sized wooden shack in almost any African shantytown and get his wife in Hawaii to fax him the New York Times crossword puzzle.

Still, who can resist the image of Theroux nearing his 60th birthday, hitching a ride on the back of a cattle truck, wearing a cast-off red T-shirt from a plumber in America which, like the other African passengers, he bought for a few coins from a stall on the side of the road? That sense of anonymous, unfettered travel is heady, and why we read Theroux.

But his image of Africa as a "dark star" waiting to swallow up the Western traveler is a 19th-century holdover - albeit one he tries to cure by reading "Heart of Darkness" 12 times on his trip from Cairo to Cape Town. He describes Africa as another planet, where, like the literary ancestor he claims in Arthur Rimbaud, he can vanish without a trace. Yet, in another way, traveling through Africa's vastness - desert, savannah, sea-like lakes - does clear the mind, like sweeping your arm across a cluttered desk.

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