grist

 

Wednesday, May 26, 2004
William Langewiesche's Sahara Unveiled opens with a shot directly across Thesiger's bows (see Arabian Sands below. He says "Do not regret the passing of the camel and the caravan....You will not diminish it by admitting that its inhabitants can drive, and that they are neither wiser nor purer nor stronger than you." This anti-romantic tone is a real strength of his book--he gives a genuine sense of the people and this world--people trapped by climate and circumstance and making their way along--the gun runner who abandons him in the desert, the Malian trying to sell cassettes on the riverboat.

The book overall is uneven--Langewiesche is trying to do some things that don't work--he reaches for the kind of prose that my hero Barry Lopez uses in Arctic Dreams and doesn't get there. His forays into history and climate are helpful but only occasionally compelling--his strengths are not in the kind of odd, rich anecdotes that Annie Dillard uses, or Lopez--and his prose is not Bruce Chatwin's nor Paul Bowles' (as the cover would have you believe). But it is refreshing to have such a hard-headed look at the place and the people--as a sucker for the romantic travel narratives, I need a little of this kind of balancing--he didn't make me want to take the trans-Saharan trek.

The most compelling character in the book for me was a Frenchman named Rene Caille, who was the first European to get to the fabled city of Timbuktu and back out again.. Langewiesche describes him as "an uneducated French peasant, frail-looking, gaunt, uncommunicative, the orphan of a prison convict." What makes him compelling is the way his nature and situation free him to travel. "Caille was the freest of men. He lived unrestrained by a proper upbringing, unrestricted by family or friendship, unconcerned with his dignity or comfort, and unafraid of dying. Carrying an umbrella and a few pounds of trading goods, he would approach his goal from the west, secretly taking notes in the Koran that he carried...." Here is a great character waiting for his novel--an anithero to fly in the face of the dashing Richard Burton model--an anonymous man who accomplishes great things because he don't call the attention of the world down on him.... (3 stars)



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