17 March 2011

Crossing the Heart of Africa (Julian Smith)

I draw the basic outline of my trip in the air: six and a half thousand miles through seven more countries, a crooked line heading north and west up the scar of the western branch of the Great Rift Valley (technically the East African Rift System), a massive fracture in the earth's crust where the continent is tearing itself in two. My goal, like Grogan's 109 years ago, is to go as far as I can down the Nile into southern Sudan ... [34-35]

Julian Smith's Crossing the Heart of Africa is part travel writing, part memoir. Smith journeyed into the continent following closely the itinerary of legendary explorer Ewart Grogan who undertook more than a century before what was then considered an impossible feat. The parallelism in the two men's travels rests not only on the similar roads they took but on their motive for their respective crossings: they both, in their own ways, did it for love. Grogan was challenged by his beloved's stepfather to the task as precondition for his marrying her. Smith, on the other hand, did his own travel on the eve of his scheduled wedding. Each of their separate travels was recounted in the book in alternating sections, with some flashbacks of the developing relationship between Smith and Laura.

The book's subtitle, "An Odyssey of Love and Adventure," promises the reader two things. The romantic notion of braving all odds to get the girl was enacted here. Grogan accomplished it and he and Gertrude lived happily ever after. (There's a long denouement recounting Grogan's further "adventures" even after his famous journey.) Smith's attitudes on his own relationship with Laura were a bit more complicated.

Thankfully, the book escaped the self-centered kind of confession from Smith. He candidly shared his personal thoughts on the matter of love. This "inner" journey into the self, the parsing of feelings before a major life-changing commitment, the need to "know oneself" through solitary travel: these are all equally perilous territories for a writer to dwell on, one that could easily fall prey into the trappings of chick lit books. I was actually resisting the book from the beginning, not sure whether I will still find two journeys whose ends were already predetermined still engaging. Yet the book was filled with enough anecdotes and concrete stories to make it a singular reading experience.

"To travel" originally meant to "suffer." A thousand years ago, life was dangerous, but leaving home was worse. The word itself comes from the Old French travailler, meaning to toil, as in "travail." It's rooted in the Latin tripalium, a torture device made of three poles tied together, to which victims would be attached and lit on fire. [101]

I was a bit put off at first with the forced alternation of chapters, feeling lost as I navigated the brief transitions between the two men's parallel travels. This device felt a bit overused and artificial for me at first, but eventually the book grew on me. I much appreciated the cultural and political contexts that Smith integrated into the text. The realization that Africa is a place fraught with danger and threats precisely because men tried to tame it. That the heart of darkness in the continent stems from personal and historical interests staked on it.

In the end though, while I found interesting the mixture of romance and adventure in the book, I actually enjoyed more the larger silent story that Smith was telling in the background. One was shown revealing aspects of human nature as Smith recalled ordinary incidents with people he interacted with. The historical precedence of violence in Africa was evident in Grogan's time as it is in the present. The all too real incidents of genocide, cannibalism, colonialism, and slavery; the challenges of wildlife and national parks management in Africa; the unstable history of newly founded African nations - all of these provide a very forceful backdrop to the shared passions of Grogan and Smith, two lovers trapped by frontier dreams. Crossing the Heart of Africa is a sometimes stirring, sometimes humorous, often barefaced and plain account of overcoming personal and emotional challenges amid the forces of nature, the clash of cultures, and the humanitarian crises enveloping the dark corners of a continent.

From here on, every step I take will be toward home. [202]

I received a copy of the book from the publisher.

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