In Praise of Savagery by Warwick Cairns

I received this from The Friday Project, a HarperCollins imprint for review. As it’s my first ever book received for review, you’d have been forgiven for thinking I’d won the lottery if you saw my reaction when it turned up.
One man’s journey in the footsteps of a great explorer into the heart of Africa. As a young man, Warwick Cairns met the then elderly explorer Wilfred Thesiger and the two men struck up an unlikely friendship. Invited to visit him at his African home, Cairns decides to make a bit of an adventure of it and do some of the journey on foot. When he himself was a young man, Thesiger led an expedition to explore the course of the Awash river in Ethiopia. Every westerner that had gone before him had been killed by local tribesmen. Needless to say, he survived. Alternating chapters chart Warwick’s journey with that of Thesiger creating a captivating dual narrative that is part travel book, part biography, part autobiography, part history with fair doses of philosophy and humour thrown in for good measure.
The summary above hits the nail on the head perfectly – it’s hard to tell exactly what this book actually is. I’m glad I’m not the Waterstones staff member that has to decide where to put this on a shelf, because they’ll have a hell of a job. I think that’s part of its charm though… there’s something for everyone. My book snob of a Godmother, who never ever reads fiction, picked it up while I was reading it (*sighs*) and loved it for its anthropological aspects whereas I enjoyed the story and dry humour for entertainment purposes.
The story follows both Cairns in the present and Thesiger in the past as they complete the same expedition through the heart of Africa. I occasionally found it a little difficult to tell who the story was following as it jumps around without any noticeable pattern.Thesiger’s adventures interested me more than Cairns’ though, as the narrative didn’t seem to put as much emphasis on trying to be funny, which is a little off-putting.
Wilfred Thesiger

I enjoyed the discussion of anthropological issues, although a little less would have been appreciated. At times I found the story of the journeys were broken up to insert lectures on civilisation. While I do think I’ve learned quite a lot about Africa, it could easily have been inserted a little more subtely.

The casual brutality of certain aspects seems to give an other-worldly atmosphere of the book. It’s quite clear at all times that we’re being given an unusual and often unobtainable glimpse into the true Africa of times past. Mind, the title gives it away; certain parts of the book are certainly ‘savage.’ Still, it’s never gruesome or violent for the sake of it – just honest.
‘But in the desert, when we found a camp we’d park our car, and hide it, and we’d wait until it got dark. And then we’d watch the lights in the tents until they went out, and we’d give them time to get off to sleep properly. Then, when it was all quiet, we’d jump into the car – me in the back with the machine-gun, driver up front, and we’d drive right through the middle of their camp and I’d blast aay at the tents on both sides, and we’d be off before they knew what hit them.’

On the other hand, it can also be quite amusing. Although the one-liners can seem a little forced at times, I usally found the humour to be quite dry and sarcastic (my type of humour, it has to be said).
This isn’t an easy book to get in to, and you have to be willing to sit down and give it your full attention – it’s not a book you can dip in and out of. Once you put the effort in though, it’s well worth it. While its not my usual type of book at all, it combines so many different elements (travelogue, biography, humour, anthropology…) that there’s definitely something for everyone.

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