REVIEW: Last Train to Zona Verde: overland from Cape Town to Angola – By Paul Theroux
The arch miserableist returns, and he’s “happy again, back in Africa, the kingdom of light”. A lot of people will hate this book, and I can see why. But strangely, I didn’t. Theroux is abrasive, opinionated, politically-incorrect and often self-indulgent. A recurrent theme of the book is the oft-quoted traveller’s question “What am I doing here?” Which he may have been advised to share a little less often with his reader. He’s clearly getting too old for the open road (and knows it) but, at the age of 71, he’s still a more impressive and adventurous traveller than most.
One thing we should be able to agree with is that the old man can still write. Quotable lines pretty much jump off the page as Theroux travels, slowly and with several extended breaks from Cape Town in South Africa to Luanda, the Capital city of Angola – “this rolling road [being] the only way of seeing how one country slid slowly into another”.
But the book starts off strangely with a pseudo-anthropological section where Theroux writes of visiting the Ju/’hoansi people in the Namibian bush. He says (and it’s worth quoting, I think):
“I then resumed kicking behind a file of small-bodied, mostly naked men and women who were quick-stepping under a sky fretted with golden fire…pouch-breasted women laughing among themselves, an infant with a head like a fuzzy fruit bobbing in one woman’s sling, men in leather clouts clutching spears and bows – and I was thinking, as I’d thought for years travelling the earth among humankind: The best of them are bare-assed.”
Later he considers what he has just seen and realises that it is not in fact evidence of an indigenous people living happily outside the corrupting influence of modernity. It is all a performance, put on for tourists and the thing he desperately wants to exist – the happy native of Mama Africa – is dead and gone.
In a world where we feel ever closer together, making travel writing something of a dying art, Theroux may himself be a dying breed. He is most definitely not an expert on the region, but I found this, quite often, to be to his advantage – his pronouncements noticeably untouched by the politically correct language of seminar room. Theroux reacts to situations with honesty and emotion, changing his mind and forming his opinion on the page.
He does, however, have some experience of living and travelling in African countries; having worked as a teacher in Uganda and Malawi in the 1960s and more recently travelled, by road, from Cairo to Cape Town in order to write Dark Star Safari. He’s also familiar with the more high-profile debates and developments in African current affairs. For example, he knows about the Chinese impact on the continent, arguments over Trade v. Aid – the latter he mistrusts, calling it “the virtue industry” – and can provide reasonable histories of, for example, post-Apartheid South Africa.
But, you get the feeling – something that is common with writers who no longer really have their finger quite on the pulse – that much of what he says is a few years (or in some cases decades) out of date. This makes you think that whilst Theroux is a keen and patient observer, particularly of the minutiae of poverty, does he really understand what’s going on?
However, more people will read Theroux’s vision of the “futureless, dystopian, world-gone-wrong, Mad Max Africa” the “squalid cities and fetid slums…the blight of incomplete and misdirected modernity” than most other books that will be written about the continent this year. For that reason, if nothing else, we should take this writing seriously, even if we don’t share its author’s own views.
Theroux’s greatest talent is that he understands what it is to be a traveller, particularly one prepared to journey into the more challenging corners of the world. In this regard, in contrast to his somehow superficial political and economic analysis, he is a sophisticated thinker. In a regular moment of self-absorption he quotes the Taoist philosopher Lieh Tzu, “when I travel, I contemplate the processes of mutability” although one wonders whether Theroux really approves of the changes he observes.
Whilst he is able to refer to his prior experience of visiting South Africa and, on his return, sees it as “brighter and better, more confident and prosperous, though none of it due to any political initiative”, he’s never been through Namibia or Angola before, so the primary benefit of his journey is that hardly anyone else has bothered to write anything about either.
Whilst I found a few sections of the book a bit of a yawn – for example, his time spent on an upmarket elephant safari in Namibia, I knew that when the going gets tough Theroux comes into his own. The writer himself seems to understand this too – travel writing is “waking up every day…hoping to discover something new and repeatable” and who wants to hear about plain sailing?
On his ‘challenging’ crossing of the Namibia-Angola border, he writes: “to someone like myself, intending to write a book, this whole morning of serial futility…perhaps fifty yards of travel – could not have been a richer or more enlightening experience”. Anyone who has ever undertaken a journey approaching the difficulty of the author’s will also identify with the following: “so I gave in and ate, and disgusted myself, and surrendered to the noise, the bad driving and the heat”.
Whilst his pseudo anthropological rambling is eccentric, and his hatred of the aid industry cranky, Theroux’s impulses fall in the right place. His assessment of the Angolan government as one that “does not actively persecute the majority of its people; it is a bureaucracy that impoverishes them by ignoring them, and is indifferent to their destitution and inhuman living conditions” seems pretty close to the mark.
He also manages to give a better pen-portrait of the average Chinese in Africa than I have read anywhere else: “practical, unsentimental do-it-yourselfers…escapees from the Chinese miracle who in Africa believed themselves to be in a promised land of no regulation, under-the-counter cash transactions and improvisation”.
As with the above, it’s the way Theroux is able to brilliantly communicate what a place or people is like, what a whole country or village feels like to be in, that is his great talent. He isn’t an analyst, historian or anthropologist, but a travel writer who allows his faults to appear open for dissection on the printed page. And I have to conclude that despite all these the old man is still worth reading.
Magnus Taylor is Editor of African Arguments.