“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.
, 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.”