Somehow, it’s not surprising to learn toward the end of Paul Theroux’s thoroughly engrossing “The Last Train to Zona Verde” that this master of travel literature has never found traveling easy. His brilliant, razor-edged observations have always struck me as gritty and hard-won.
Setting out solo, intent on an overland journey, relying on ramshackle buses and cars, he depends on nothing so much as “chance meetings,” “dumb luck” and “the kindness of strangers.” He is drawn to the road not by run-of-the-mill wanderlust but because, for Theroux, travel resembles nothing so much as writing: “a groping in the dark, wandering into the unknown, coming to understand the condition of strangeness.” To pit yourself against the strange is never easy — but the strangeness is why you go.
At 72, Theroux has had a long career shepherding readers through the unfamiliar. The author of 46 books, fiction and nonfiction, he is best known for his wry “The Great Railway Bazaar,” which chronicled a 1973 journey through Asia, or “The Old Patagonian Express,” in which he hopped a Boston train and rode the rails all the way to the cold, barren heart of Argentina. For “Dark Star Safari,” published a decade ago, he swept up the right side of Africa, hoping to rekindle his youthful enthusiasms. He has been called a grump, a misanthrope, a curmudgeon, and indeed he doesn’t suffer fools as he goes, but his books never fail to reveal the nature of a people or the startling beauty of a landscape in prose that seems vibrant and new.
Now, in “The Last Train to Zona Verde,” Theroux undertakes what he claims is a valedictory trip, the last of his career. Returning to Africa, that “kingdom of light” where he spent the happiest years of his life as a Peace Corps worker in Malawi and Uganda, he does what he has never done before: travel up the little-known west coast, from Cape Town toward Timbuktu.
This time, however, he isn’t after beauty or strangeness; it is a sudden aversion to mindless social gatherings that is the fuel. “I was hurrying away from my routine and my responsibilities and my general disgust with fatuous talk, money talk, money stories, the donkey laughter at dinner parties.” It is travel as rejection, and he is glad to get away.
The Africa to which he returns, however — the Africa that once “gave me everything” — has been transformed for both good and bad. The squatter camps in Cape Town, once a proliferation of ticky-tacky shacks built on the stink and sand that circled the city, are now “a settlement of tidy, russet-roofed houses that lay behind a high fence beside the road. They were not reconditioned huts or renovated hovels, they were new and solid-looking, and they stood very close together in what were obviously the footprints of the shacks and sheds that I had seen a decade before.”
From Cape Town to Namibia to the Okavango Delta, Theroux is his inimitable, delightfully grouchy and incisive self. Alert, questioning, taking pains to ensure that his reader understands Africa’s complicated history, he lets us know how difficult this is for him: He is in his eighth decade, after all, he has gout, he has an aversion to the fly-spotted food that is ubiquitous around him. He is also acutely aware of the ironies: that an American traveler can sit on a patio, serenely sipping his sauvignon blanc, and look out at a toxic cloud that hovers above the sprawling black townships; that he can stay at a luxury hotel and partake of an ample breakfast before he goes out to where the hungry live; that he can ride a Mercedes limo to the rattletrap bus that will ferry him into the continent’s green heart.
Theroux has no patience for the “slum tourism” that has mushroomed in Africa, the travelers drawn to “the people of the abyss,” the “poverty porn” taken up enthusiastically by no one so much as the poor themselves. Nor does he approve of safari tourism, which, at the end of the day, is little more than theater. Worse is his opinion of Hollywood humanitarians, the Bonos and Oprahs and Angelina Jolies, who use Africa’s hunger and squalor to burnish their outsize egos. As far as Theroux is concerned, much of the aid dispatched to the continent is harmful, instilling a culture of dependency that discourages investment, retards growth and leaves Africans helpless and infantilized.
Making his way to Afrique profonde by whatever means he can — on a shaky bus through Namibia, on the backs of elephants or even hitching a ride with a drunk — Theroux eventually finds himself on the hot, flat bush beyond Namibia’s Vet Fence, in the land of the Bushmen, the Ju/’hoansi. These are the Real People, our oldest living ancestors. In earlier travels, he saw them but never had the good fortune to meet one.
“I had glimpsed them with fascination, the way you see a bird of passage flashing onto a nearby branch and twitching its brilliant tail. Their physiognomy — the look of these people, their whole physical being — was unmistakable. Now and then, on a busy Cape Town street or in a sleepy dorp in the countryside, I would see that light-hued, faintly Asiatic face, the narrow eyes, the delicate hands, the small stature, a distinct upright way of standing and a swift, almost skipping way of walking. . . . And I felt there was something radiant about them.” Talking to Bushmen, spending time in their ambit, “I was happier than I could remember being. . . . Maybe happiness is the wrong word; perhaps what I felt was bliss bordering on rapture.”
But that rapture evaporates as he moves ever north, toward Luanda. He is stranded in a dusty town, with nothing to eat but a carious chicken leg or two. He looks around oil-rich Angola to see a country of heartbreaking disparities: one that rakes in a $40 billion profit every year yet cannot feed its poor. Corruption is endemic; hunger stalks every corner; there is crime, AIDS and a burgeoning population of disaffected youth. In Luanda, “I became conscious of entering a zone of irrationality.” Even laughter began to sound “insane and chattering and agonic, like an amplified death rattle.”
For Theroux, it is the Zona Verde — the African bush, everything that isn’t a city — that sums up the Africa he loves. Not the urban knots with their rank misery: “the awful, poisoned, populous Africa; the Africa of cheated, despised, unaccommodated people, of seemingly unfixable blight: so hideous, really, it is unrecognizable as Africa at all. But it is, of course — the New Africa.” In time, inoculated by the sight of it, he realizes it’s time to go home.
If you’re thinking “The Last Train to Zona Verde” is a journey from bliss to sorrow, you wouldn’t be wrong. But it’s a journey worth taking. At times tragic, often comical and always gorgeously written, this is a paean to a continent, by a writer unafraid to give it some tough love.
THE LAST TRAIN TO ZONA VERDE
My Ultimate African Safari
By Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 353 pp. $27
Marie Arana, a writer at large for The Washington Post and a consultant to the librarian of Congress, is the author of numerous books, the latest of which is “Bolivar: American Liberator.”