Writing vs. Storytelling

By pure coincidence, I recently happened to read two non-fiction books about the same general topic, traveling through Africa. Dark Star Safari, by Paul Theroux, and African Silences, by Peter Matthiessen. The juxtaposition of the two tales made me think about writing versus storytelling.

The two authors themselves are similar in many ways. White, American males from the northeast, middle-aged when writing the books, of the same generation or nearly, having lived and worked in Africa years earlier and now returning to revisit the continent. They are both famous and successful authors, well-received critically, and much lauded. And while both are good writers, one is more clearly a storyteller as well. And isn’t it stories that we want to read, the kind that draw us in past the words, past the black and white text, to a world that we envision opening all around us. Storytelling, good storytelling, seamless and enthralling, is the most difficult form of writing to master. The technique can be somewhat learned, but the experts have an innate talent.

I’m going to say nothing more, no analysis, simply leaving you with four passages to review for yourselves, allowing you to draw your own conclusions.

The following are the first paragraph from each book.

Dark Star Safari:

“All news out of Africa is bad. It made me want to go there, though not for the horror, the hots spots, the massacre-and-earthquake stories you read in the newspaper; I wanted the pleasure of being in Africa again. Feeling that the place was so large it contained many untold tales and some hope and comedy and sweetness, too- feeling that there was more to Africa than misery and terror- I aimed to reinsert myself in the bunda, as we used to call the bush, and to wander the antique hinterland. There I had lived and worked, happily, almost forty years ago, in the heart of the greenest continent.”

African Silences:

“On African journeys that began with an overland trip from Egypt to Tanganyika in 1961, I traveled widely in East and southern Africa (Botswana), the last great redoubt of large and wild creatures left on earth. Not until the winter of 1978 did I reach West Africa- specifically Senegal-Gambia and Ivory Coast- accompanying a primatologist, Dr. Gilbert Boese, on an informal survey of what was left of West Africa wildlife, from the Sahel region, south of the Sahara, to the Guinea forest of the coasts, then continuing eastward to Zaire, hoping to join an expedition in search of the rare Congo peacock, and enjoying two meetings with gorillas along the way.”

The following are a paragraph from each book, chosen completely at random.

Dark Star Safari:

“My first impression of Addis Ababa: handsome people in rags, possessed of both haughtiness and destitution, a race of aristocrats who had pawned the family silver. Ethiopia was unique in black Africa for having its own script, and therefore its own written history and a powerful sense of the past. Ethiopians are aware of their ancient cultural links with India and Egypt and the religious fountainhead of the Middle East, often claiming to be among the earliest Christians. When your barbarian ancestors were running around Europe bare-assed, with bellies painted in blue woad, elaborately clothed Ethiopians were breeding livestock and using the wheel and defending their civilization against the onslaught of Islam, while piously observing the Ten Commandments.”

African Silences:

“In the dead heat that persists into the dusk, the kob and waterbuck lie down on the dry mud of Sita N’di (the western kob seem to ignore the hottest sun) but the bushbuck and warthog have retreated to the shade of the hot dry woodland all around. Here and there, the woodland floor is white with silk-cotton from the Ceiba pods, which are eaten by baboons as well as vervets and thereby scattered in the time of seeding. Bamboo the brown color of burning white paper sprouts from a crust of lateritic stone, and the common Pterocarpus tree is coming into a pretty yellow blossom, as if in anticipation of the rains, but over the white woods hangs a ghostly stillness, intensified by hot wafts of the harmattan in the dry fans of raffia and borassus.”

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