Michael Palin, formerly one-fifth of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, has established himself as a travel writer since the troupe disbanded, starring in televised journeys for the BBC and writing the books to go with them. He is one of those enterprising souls who goes places I dare not venture, does things I dare not do, and then shares the experience with me. I’m glad of that, for otherwise I would never have known that the sweet tea served by West Africans is drunk in rapid rounds of three, and if anyone is offered a fourth cup, it means that he has outstayed his welcome. If you take pleasure in such trivia, you will find enough to satisfy you in Sahara
, an expedition through the former French African territories.
The journey begins and ends in Gibraltar, where Palin looks across to the coast of Africa, first in anticipation, and then in retrospect. In between, he visits nine North African countries (one of them, the sprawling Algeria, three separate times), crossing mountain and dessert, river and coastline, by train, boat, camel, foot, not to mention death-defying taxi drives. From the rugged Atlas Mountains to the island resorts of Tunisia and the scorched desert in between, Palin describes the journey with a wonderful eye for colour, particularly the sunsets, and an unfailing comedic radar for off-the-wall characters.
But he also combines substance with his style. The book is full of political, cultural and historical observations that foster a real understanding of these countries. Most memorable is the time spent in the disputed territory of Western Sahara, where a quarter of a million refugees have been living for twenty-five years while they wait for the return of their own land. Palin explains their determinations by quoting, without a hint of mockery, one man’s belief: “Ours is the best dessert.”
Reading this book, I began to realize that Palin was not chosen for this trip merely because of his celebrity status. He seems to have taken his assignment very seriously, extensively researching the countries before his visits. I also have the impression that, while the segments recounting each day’s events are brief, they are backed by copious amounts of note-taking. His dedication to the job is also evident in how much he suffers for it. Privations, inconveniences, and sometimes physical illness dog him at every turn, but he describes them in a delightful, self-deprecating way that demands just a little pity but not too much discomforting sympathy from the reader. This book has a lovely whimsical quality to it, particularly in the places where Palin gives his offhand observations. Being awakened by a muezzin call to prayer makes him wonder “whether any Muslims have ever been woken by the sound of the Bishop of Bath and Wells.” And, crossing the border into the Sahara, he can’t help but notice how chubby the sparrows are at the edge of the dessert. Such comments make this a deceptively light, amusing travelogue, both witty and reflective.
And it is surprisingly touching. As he progressed from country to country, Palin seemed to grow more interested in the lives of the people he met and presenting them as rounded characters instead of light caricatures. After completing his circuit at Gibraltar, he ends the narrative with a somber mediation on the difficult choices made by those who risk so much fleeing North Africa for the chance of a new life in Europe. This last chapter is quite a contrast with the frivolous tone of the first one, but both reflect the scope of the book. It begins by making you chuckle and ends by making you think.