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.