How Thomas Goltz found himself in Africa

Thomas Goltz’s African adventure, at least as related in his just-published memoir, does not inspire emulation. During Goltz’s two-year trip in the late 1970s, he slept in places so unsavory they make a rancid hostel bed seem cozy. His travels got him doused with goat blood and covered in his own feces, the latter just before being taken to an Ethiopian jail on suspicion of espionage. Goltz very nearly lost his mind late in the trek, at one point fleeing from some hospitable farmers whose jocular taunts were magnified by Goltz’s exhausted hallucination into deadly peril.

So while Assassinating Shakespeare: Confessions of a Bard in the Bush might not exactly invite travelers to follow in his footsteps, the tales contained therein do evoke awe. They are raw experiences, rarely filtered and, despite how harrowing they appear in hindsight, seemingly fun for—or at least fondly remembered by—the protagonist. Goltz’s prose ably conveys the texture of the terrain of his trip, which he financed by performing excerpts from the works of William Shakespeare in venues ranging from theater clubs for European expatriates to dusty market plazas. That work earned Goltz notoriety in both print and broadcast media outlets, as well as a word-of-mouth reputation. Mostly, though, it provided him the means to track down his brother Eddy, whose presence in Africa is what originally attracted Goltz to the continent.

Success in that quest comes late and without much reward. In fact, many of Goltz’s successes are intermittent and fleeting—a theater festival in Zambia, a spate of steady gigs in schools, talking his way into the director’s box of a top-shelf Shakespeare production in the Bard’s Stratford-on-Avon birthplace—but melancholy and madness descend almost inexorably. On one level, Assassinating Shakespeare is a wild hippie romp through the fractious African continent, replete with booze, grass and whoring around. But the tale is darkened by Goltz’s recklessly confrontational persona, particularly when self-reflection leads him to despair at the strangeness of his life and adopted environment.

At one point Goltz writes of returning, just before his final departure, to a hostel where he had stayed early on. The travelers there have heard rumors of the itinerant “Shakespeare guy” and are rattling off their uninformed opinions of the man who, they do not know, is sitting in the same room. Goltz jumps up and blocks the door, grabbing a carving knife to the terror of all involved and launching into Macbeth’s famous soliloquy—“Is this a dagger I see before me?”—and stopping short when he’s recognized. In the book, Goltz describes the reaction:

“‘It’s him,’ someone blurted out. ‘It’s him, the fucking Shakespeare guy!’ Indeed, it was he who was I who was once me, studying how I might compare the prison where I lived to the world.”

The study, at least, furnished Goltz with the impetus to reinvent himself. After returning to the United States, Goltz studied Arabic, adding it to the German in which he was already fluent, and later picking up Turkish as well. For two decades, Goltz worked as a foreign correspondent throughout central and southwest Asia, most notably in the former Soviet states of Azerbaijan and Georgia, as well as the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya. In addition to filing regular news reports from the areas, Goltz also authored three books about the developing civil unrest in each place as the former Soviet Union came apart. This month, he concludes a semester-long stint teaching a class on the post-Soviet Caucasus at the University of Montana; he will teach two more classes next semester—one on Turkey and its neighbors and another on reporting from a war zone.

In a recent interview, Goltz described the spirit imbuing his African travels as fundamental to his later successes as a correspondent from far-flung and downtrodden locales. The young man who stumbled into Ethiopia in the middle of a civil war exhibits the same penchant for danger that marks Goltz’s reporting from the Caucasus. Both African and Asian experiences fit with Goltz’s youthful departure from his hometown of Fargo, N.D., and the spirit of quarrelsome adventure that sent him hitchhiking around the United States at age 14. Throughout, Goltz says, he “cannot remember a time when I did not write.”

His journals from Africa provided the raw material later fashioned into Assassinating Shakespeare. And his attempts to see the story told in print span practically the whole of Goltz’s post-African life.

“It is really meaningful to me to have come so full circle with this work,” he says. “If you have something you deeply believe in, sometimes it can take more than half a lifetime to bring it to fruition.”

For though Goltz’s reporting and analysis have since earned him professional respect, the time he spent living in and reflecting on Africa was formative. And it was a story he wanted told.

“I’m just hugely relieved that this thing has seen the light of day,” he says. “I was starting to worry that I’d have to get famous and die before it got published.”

Thomas Goltz reads from and signs copies of Assassinating Shakespeare at Shakespeare & Co. Tuesday, Dec. 12, at 7 PM.

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