A Safari with a Difference
- Robert Sedlack (Author)
The African Safari Papers. Doubleday Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Evelyn Cobley
Readers expecting a travelogue or serious treatment of Africa may well be disappointed by this darkly comic fictional journal narrated by Richard, a highly neurotic teenager accompanying his parents on the family trip of a lifetime to Africa. The setting for an exploration into the dynamics of a dysfunctional group is well chosen: a safari affords family members no escape from each other. What makes this setting even more claustrophobic is the father’s decision to pay for a private safari. There are no other tourists to mediate the relationship between the three characters; there is only their mysterious Kenyan guide, Gabriel. Sliding between Western and African ways of communicating with the family (he has studied medicine in London), Gabriel interferes in the family wars and complicates matters.
In less exotic settings, it is possible to defuse a tension-filled situation by going out to meet other people; On a safari, any thought of taking a walk is immediately checked by the realization that one could be killed and eaten by a lion, a crocodile, even a hyena. Since the focus of the novel is elsewhere, the treatment of Africa is disappointingly cursory, with the author making little attempt to present a general portrait of Kenya or its people. Comments on "the native Africans, who continued to stare with hatred," or on the "thrill" of experiencing the country and its animals tend to remain superficial. But the author seems to have some first-hand knowledge of the typical safari experience. The background to the family drama is evoked with a good eye to the reactions any tourist might have to both the joys and discomforts felt when one is a visitor in a land belonging to wild animals. Although Richard’s objections to mass tourism, to the "overweight, pasty, white mediocrity circling the lions and snapping and pointing and giggling and gasping and burping," are fully justified, his criticism is rarely relieved by a more positive appreciation of animals. His encounters with animals are always about his reactions: watching a lion kill a zebra, he is nauseated; swimming across a river, he is scared of hyenas. His most authentic African moment comes when he is being stared at by a lion and realizes that he is being regarded as food.
Yet the portrayal of the fluctuating and ultimately deteriorating relationships between the drug-addicted and sex-crazed son, the depressed and increasingly suicidal mother, and the alcoholic and frustrated father makes The African Safari Papers a novel well worth reading. Using a self-incriminating narrator, the author is able to play on many registers of comedy, irony, and sadly human folly. Written in the brash style of a Generation Xer, the journal is focalized through a consciousness whose self-image is often at odds with the image others reflect back to him. The "frustrating dynamic"—"When mom is down, dad is up. When mom is up, dad is down"—is observed with painful accuracy. Richard himself alternates between hating his parents and feeling sorry for them. Most of all, though, he is self-absorbed, selfish, and occasionally sadistic. Seeking answers to his problems, he interprets the world around him to suit a self-image which the reader recognizes as delusional. Although Richard believes that everybody around him has serious problems, others indicate that it is he who is "messed up," is in "crisis," and needs "help." Far from being innocently blind to his own faults, Richard is at times a most self-conscious character. His self-awareness ranges from subtle hints to outright self-interpretations. In one case, Richard laughs "too hard and too long, a mad, nervous laugh" when asked by Gabriel "Do you think you might be crazy like your mother?" More explicitly, he tends to analyze himself, castigating himself for being "such a baby," "a puking wimp" or "a fucking redneck," for being "concerned for me" rather than for his mother, and for being "so damn selfish." Most of all, he sees himself a "a loser," a "total and complete failure" who has "opinions on everything."
In fact, the author has a tendency to editorialize too much; he can never quite stop himself from explaining what would better be left for the reader to figure out. However, much of the pleasure in reading this novel stems both from the narrator’s self-incrimination and from the ambiguity created by his unreliability. Not only is his view of others often undercut by how own problems, but he creates many highly embarrassing situations for himself as when he interprets the most innocent gestures and words by women as a sexual come-on or when he imagines that his mother must at some point have molested him.
Written with energy and acerbic wit, the novel asks us to sympathize with a character who appeals to us through his self-loathing vulnerability while also repelling us through his callous selfishness. In many ways a highly entertaining novel, The African Safari Papers is at the same time a painfully astute depiction of a troubled teenager and his equally troubled parents.
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MLA: Cobley, Evelyn. A Safari with a Difference. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #177 (Summer 2003), (Duncan, Wiebe, Jameson, Thérault, Martel). (pg. 183 - 184)
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