One lecture and two brief meetings with explorer Wilfred Thesiger provided Warwick Cairns with the inspiration to write In Praise of Savagery. Comparison with Geoff Dyer and Bill Bryson is nugatory, as Cairns lacks the darkness of Dyer or the drollery of Bryson. Clichés that would strain a conversation are present on most pages: Thesiger is “a mountain of a man” with a “bear-sized hand”; worlds are lost and tribes are vanished.
Clunky writing aside, the book’s structure drives the narrative; Cairns interweaves the tale of his modest journey to spend a single day in Thesiger’s company, with his account of Thesiger’s Danakil expedition, extracted from the explorer’s diaries, autobiography and biography. Discursive passages find the author musing about the pleasure of retribution, duty and the boredom of much of contemporary existence.
The pleasure of the book came from Cairn’s retelling of Thesiger’s expedition. Though the three hours spent in the company of In Praise of Savagery were not distressing, I’d prefer to read Thesiger’s own account.