West on Books: Paul Theroux’s African Valediction
Reviewed by Richard West
“Perils he sought not, but ne’er shrank to meet:
The scene was savage, but the scene was new;
This made the ceaseless toil of travel sweet.” (“Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” Byron)
For 50 years Paul Theroux has been a traveling man, and as dean of American travel writing, chronicled his wanderings in fifteen best-selling books. Like Childe Harold, for Theroux it has not been a question of happiness but the happiness of the quest. Occasionally, as in “The Kingdom by the Sea,” he has come across as ornery as a bunkhouse cook, but, for me, that has been part of the great charm found in his writings. Lovely prose, displaying the curiosity of great explorers, opinions!, chronicling the Sisyphrustrations of hard daily travels absent in “tourism” have been the admirable hallmarks of his travel narratives.
Ten years ago in “Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town” Theroux explored the right-hand-side of Africa. In his new “The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari” he resumes his trip in Cape Town and “after seeing how that city had changed in ten years, travel north in a new direction up the left-hand-side until I found the end of the line, either on the road or in my mind.” Both it turns out in this bitter-sweet wonderfully-crafted book that takes him from South Africa north through Namibia to the dreadful abyss of Angola. Energetic Paul Theroux has aged very well (he is 71), but much of the Africa he found in this new book is a violent trashcan of MRE’s (morally repugnant elites) or living-on-the-edge poor folk.
It starts well in Cape Town– improved townships, a booming economy, the enduring beauty of Table Mountain which holds more plant species than all of the British Isles—and lovely towns to the northwest like Citrusdal and Springbok. Namibian cities like Windhoek and Swakopmund are clean and orderly, reflecting their Germanic heritage. But look on their outskirts: hardscrabble gatherings like Swakopmund’s Mondesa bleak township with its poverty, high HIV/AIDS infection rates, unemployment, and general neglect.
And it gets worse the closer Theroux gets to Angola, the only African colony that began as a penal settlement. “Portugal’s Siberia” Theroux calls it, now obscenely rich ($40 billion annually) from off-shore oil and diamonds, yet remains a brutalized landscape with stumps of deforestation, burned-out tanks from a decades-long civil war, poisoned streams, no wild animals (all killed in the fighting or eaten by the hungry populace). He gamely endures the squalor, an ATM fraud of $48,000, the rudeness and contempt of officials, the deaths of three friends (one beaten to death), inedible food, what sociologists call “challenging urban environments” and we call bad neighborhoods, as he sinks into a Lear-like lamentation at the ruination of his beloved Africa. By the end you picture our seasoned traveler with his head in his hands like Van Gogh’s portrait of Dr. Gachet.
“Zona Verde” is a euphemism for the bush, the non-urban outback Theroux loves the most. Yet this train-loving traveler refuses the trip: “Not this time. I had no desire to board the train. And, thinking it, I was joyous—a great relief to conclude that this was the end of my trip. No more…I felt beckoned home.” OWAWA, oh well, Africa wins again.
Richard West spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek. Since then, he’s had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of Texas Arts & Letters