Africa Cures an Author--and Survives : THE FROZEN LEOPARD, <i> by Aaron Latham,</i> Prentice Hall/A Destinations Book, $20, 235 pages
Here is the truest sentence in this travel book:
“No matter how bad you feel, you can always be made to feel worse by too many hours in an airplane seat.”
When Aaron Latham hits the ground in Africa, the trouble begins. “The Frozen Leopard” (the title comes from the look of a patch of snow on a Kenyan mountainside) is the story of a depressed man on a high-priced safari. The book is a modern example of the term “pathetic fallacy"--the confusion of the interior landscape with the exterior landscape. Wordsworth feels lonely, the clouds in the poem are lonely. It’s raining? Must be because I’m crying. In the grip of pathetic fallacy, Latham imagines that Africa reflects his feelings. Africa is just there. Africa doesn’t care whether he’s depressed or not.
As he sets out, Latham suffers, like Melville’s Ishmael, from a “damp, drizzly November” of the soul. In his late 40s and having written a couple of good books, including “Crazy Sundays: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood,” Latham has just had three flops in a row. Two scripts he wrote failed to make it to the screen, a third movie project died when his writing stalled.
He hopes he can cure himself by travel--specifically a monthlong safari in Kenya and Rwanda with his wife, CBS White House correspondent Leslie Stahl, their daughter Taylor, a brother-in-law and nephew. Most of the trip is in a Toyota Land Cruiser, driven by a guide named Derek Dames, assisted by a staff of nine.
Latham has the grace to be embarrassed by the uniformed staff--"such luxury seemed to belong to a bygone Bwana age.”
“The Frozen Leopard” might work, despite the fact that this safari is not the most adventurous of adventures. But the book is doomed by painfully plodding writing. “We decided to clean up before dinner.” “A long table awaited us inside.” “We came across a gerenuk fawn looking like Bambi without spots. . . .”
The interesting part of this trip, to him, is the change in his interior landscape. Africa, which reminded him of the West Texas plains where he grew up, felt like home. Furthermore, Latham’s first sight of animals induces an ecstatic feeling, to be repeated with gorillas and elephants, of seeming to enter them. “I loved being a giraffe instead of a writer.” A reviewer needs a lot of self-restraint not to say anything more about that.
If the writing didn’t tread so heavily, a book about the interior landscape could have worked. But Latham gave himself a big handicap by writing about a relatively easy trip. Bruce Chatwin traveled to escape paralyzing depression, but he went to Patagonia, with a small backpack and one bottle of champagne. Paul Theroux felt restless and self-destructive, so he set out solo on the trans-Siberian railroad. Most successful travel books describe a trip most readers wouldn’t take. True travel book addicts will not much want to read about Latham sitting in a leather folding chair drinking a chilled Coke.
The enormous sadness Latham feels is undeniably real. At first he believed he felt so low because of the three failed screenplays. Given time away from work, he realizes that the specific source of sadness was that for years he had been covering over his grief at the death of his sister in a car accident. “In Africa,” he writes, “the dead wouldn’t stay dead.”
There are nice encounters along the way. Latham meets a woman, Anna Merz, who tucked an abandoned rhino calf into her bed and fed it with a bottle. He talks to Cynthia Moss, author of “Elephant Memories; Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family.” As he recalls the scene of an elephant daughter grieving for her mother (“The daughter would curl her trunk through her mama’s empty eye socket and gently rock the skull back and forth.”), his reaction is, if an elephant can grieve, why can’t I?
Hiking up the to the Rwanda mountain top of gorilla expert Dian Fossey, Latham wonders, “Would I bog down halfway up the mountain the way I had bogged down in the middle of my screenplay. . . ?” The reader will be astonished to find that the ordeal he describes here is a climb of an hour and a half.
The writing in “The Frozen Leopard” is not so much snarled as overly simple. This is the prose of bad children’s books: “I was beginning to believe in the magical pull of Africa, but I couldn’t just let magic be magic. I had to try somehow to understand it. I wanted to solve the mystery of magic. I was straining for a peek inside Africa’s magician’s hat.”
After the safari, Latham lingers to ask various Africans, all of them white Africans, why Africa has affected him so strongly. Wildlife expert Richard Leakey, son of the famous anthropologists, responds briskly, “Genetic memory.” “We feel at home in East Africa,” Latham writes, “because it was our home a million or so years ago.”
Perhaps because of genetic memory, Africa turns out to be an effective cure for depression, but even the cure is presented tritely. “I could still be amazed. Which was the most amazing discovery of all.”
As the book ends, Latham drives out for a last look at the Savannah. “Like the drizzle in my soul, the drops on my windshield slowed and then ceased altogether.” Then he sees, inevitably, nature’s smile--a rainbow. Africa, Beryl Markham wrote, “withstands all interpretations.” The continent can withstand even this one, Africa as Prozac.
Next: Jonathan Kirsch reviews “Fates Worse Than Death” by Kurt Vonnegut (Putnam’s)