The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari, By Paul Theroux, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 353 pp., $27
Paul Theroux’s globe, if it had a pin stuck in it for every visited city and town, would bristle like a frightened porcupine. The west coast of Africa has remained one of its last barren patches, and for good reason: hostile governments, tropical disease, ravaged environments, and predators, both human and non. In 2003’s Dark Star Safari, he traveled bumptiously down the east coast of the continent, which, compared with Africa’s left coast—to say nothing of its interior—is virtually Scandinavian in its safety and ease of movement.
The Last Train to Zona Verde advertises itself as Theroux’s “final African adventure,” and few who read it will doubt his promise never to return. In his previous Africa book, he wrote convincingly of the destructive effects of foreign aid and how it robs Africans of the ingenuity and initiative they displayed when he taught in Malawi (then Nyasaland) as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s. On this return journey, he begins where he left off, in Cape Town, deeply perturbed and skeptical about the future of the continent. He heads for points north and west, first to Namibia and Botswana, then to Angola. I spoil little by saying that Theroux’s original plan to proceed to Timbuktu is thwarted, and the total mileage covered in this book is the least of any of his travelogues.
Theroux’s great realization—starting with The Great Railway Bazaar in 1975—was that travel writing didn’t require, or even reward, the sort of quasi-omniscient narration that one finds in guidebooks, or the inhumanly sunny disposition of magazine writing. Instead, the pleasures of the genre could be character-driven (“I sought trains; I found passengers”) and leave in the bits about hassles and inconvenience that make up the bulk of the experience of getting from place to place. No depiction of Kabul would be frank if it included Babur’s gardens but omitted the city’s daily horrors and bloodshed. The result of this method, which has distinguished forbears in Mark Twain, Robert Byron, and Nicolas Bouvier, is a remarkably faithful mirror to reality. Theroux correctly identified the fanatical religious undercurrents in prerevolutionary Iran, for example, when the secular authority of the shah appeared uncontested, and the rumblings of revolt against an oppressive government in China before Tiananmen Square.
In The Last Train to Zona Verde, Theroux’s bitterness toward Africa congeals to a concentrated and unpalatable bile, unaccompanied this time with much love for the land, its past or future, or its people. In South Africa, he visits townships and complains to his guide about the filthy streets, pointing out indiscreetly that any community too lazy to put in a few minutes of broom work must be profoundly sick. He lashes out at the country’s politicians, who have squandered Nelson Mandela’s moral capital by dignifying as “political violence” what is really just murderous hooliganism. In Namibia, he admires aspects of the life of the Bushmen but concedes that their hunter-gatherer ways have been lost and that their communities are “badly in need of rescue,” though the Western donors rushing to help often do harm instead.
But Theroux reserves special disdain for Angola, run by a corrupt bureaucracy that welcomes foreigners only if they come to extract the country’s abundant oil. When I was rejected for an Angolan tourist visa in 2001, I quizzed fellow backpackers to see whether anyone had managed to go; I found just one: a Japanese kid who received his visa through a clerical error, only to have it canceled (“ANULADO,” read the ink-smeared stamp in his passport) when he flew in and was immediately deported. Theroux gets in legally, invited to guest-lecture at local schools.
He finds a country financially, politically, and morally wrecked. Its wealthy expatriate oil workers pay $7,000 per month for terrible housing and $47,000 per year for their children’s education. Meanwhile, nonbillionaire Angolans, a majority of the general population (though not of the president’s cabinet), live miserably as a permanent underclass, locked into a condition of criminality and turpitude that will lead—predicts Kalunga Lima, Theroux’s one trusted Angolan friend—to a political crisis and perhaps a return to war. By the time Theroux reaches Luanda, the capital, having gamely attempted an overland route from Cape Town, he is exhausted and dispirited, and ditches the rest of his planned trip through the Republic of Congo, Nigeria, and Mali, having decided that wading through another thousand miles of West African ordure would be as unedifying for readers as it would be for him.
His decision was surely a wise one. (West Africa is one of my favorite places, but “things improved when I crossed into Nigeria” is a sentence that has never been written.) In Angola and Namibia, three of Theroux’s friends and interviewees, including Kalunga Lima, died violently or unexpectedly soon after meeting him—one crushed by an elephant, another bludgeoned to death in bed, and Kalunga Lima of a heart attack. A touch of pessimism is warranted.
Still, it’s sad to hear the note of surrender in Theroux’s farewell to Africa. In his China, Oceania, and railway books, which will be read and loved long after this one goes out of print, Theroux emerged with unique and wonderful characters who, in spite of their singularity, seemed to explain the places where they lived. You learned something about the Marquesas or Chengdu or Peshawar, and discovered that the world was a more interesting place than you ever supposed—the cardinal delight of all travel writing. No one doubts, of course, that equally rich characters populate hellholes like Cabinda and Lagos. There is perhaps not enough oil money in all of Angola to pay Theroux, now 72, to go find those characters himself. But that is our loss more than his.