Henry Miller’s The Books In My Life lists this book as “the greatest adventure story of modern times.” I struggled to find a copy of the 1938 story, finally acquiring a version from a university library that Xeroxed the original book and bound it into an 8.5×11″ casing which leaves oceans of white space around the original 5×8″ text.
RenÃ© CailliÃ© was an early 19th century explorer who self-funded the first successful visit of a white man to the mysterious city of Timbuktu. The Frenchman acquired the habits, language, and dress of the local Muslims, and walked ~3000 miles from the west coast of Africa, meandering along with his various caravans to Timbuktu (fighting disease, sores, hunger, scurvy), feasting his eyes on the Niger River and floating the final stretch into Timbuktu, then crossing the Sahara and nearly dying of thirst when the wells were dried up, slipping into Morocco and thrusting himself on the French consulate in Fez. He carefully took notes while pretending to read pages of the Koran, took scientific measurements discretely with his compass, and avoided any detection of his real goal, “to write the country.”
The book itself is condescending to the African natives, calling them simpleminded, and making ridiculous statements that yearn for harsher days:
As for the children, their charm is beyond white rivalry, so winsome in their negro nudity that one almost wishes all the world’s babies could be black! There nearly blue-black little girls, sleek-skinned as plums, with a string of white beads at the base of their throats and another at the base of their stomachs, all smiles and infant coquetry, make one almost regret the old slave days. For which of us could deny a momentary impulse to buy one of these delightful black dolls and stuff it with sweets? (p 170-1)
I was surprised to discover that Galbraith Welch was a woman, fully ready to launch into a diatribe about the ridiculousness of men in the 1930s with regards to writing about women. I’m still astounded by those passages, now even more so since at the pen of a woman, such as describing the women of Timbuktu:
Generations of brave travelers had sobbed out relief at deliverance, or horror of the ordeal to come, in the arms of the consoling women of Timbuctoo. Chastity would have been a niggardly vice where so many tortured men needed tenderness. (p 254)
Definitely not the greatest adventure story I’ve ever read.