Following is my review of Paul Theroux’s The Last Train to Zona Verde - My Ultimate African Safari, Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, NY, 2013
Paul Theroux asserts that his recent journey through southern Africa, recounted in this book, is his last. That is probably a good idea. Theroux’s wonder and fascination with the realities of the third world have turned sour. He has been there and done that. Enough of being crammed into dilapidated jalopies, bad food, hovels for hotels and hearing the cynicism of fellow travelers and/or those he encounters along the way. To his credit Theroux does not mince words. His descriptions paint vivid pictures of the squalor of contemporary Africa, particularly the vast parts of the continent that stretch out beyond the high walls of diplomatic compounds or the carefully guarded game parks.
Theroux’s journey began in Cape Town where he was struck by the gap between rich and poor. Astonishingly, the squalid townships that ring Cape Town have become tourist destinations themselves. Visitors simply come to experience the poverty and the hubris of those affected. The pervasiveness of poverty and the futility of those trapped in it became a theme of the book. Indeed Theroux offers a voyeuristic window into the lives of the dispossessed.
Throughout the journal, Theroux recalls and meditates on observations writers have made over the eons about travel - about what it is, why one does it and for what effect? He also ruminates about his role as a traveler. How is he viewed and what impact does he have? An elderly white man traveling on a local bus in out of the way Africa cannot just be an observer. Inevitably he is drawn into the milieu of life around him. While Theroux fretted over this dilemma of observation versus involvement, nonetheless he readily engaged.
The second part of the journey is into Namibia where there is much commentary about the excesses and failures of German rule, contemporary racism, and some interesting encounters with the !Kung/San people. The !Kung/San are the Kalahari bushmen, the oldest inhabitants of Africa, and traditionally peaceful hunter gatherers. Although Theroux cited many scholarly texts about their lifestyle and culture, those individuals he found mostly remembered some of their culture rather than lived it. Even though well intended outsiders - and even some !Kung/San as well - seek to preserve the vanishing way of life, Theroux concluded that it is already doomed.
In another odd stop Theroux visited the safari camp where one can ride African elephants into the bush. The elephants used for this purpose are mostly from European and American circuses and have been browbeaten into service. Such a safari has the advantage of uniqueness, but the whole operation smacks of exploitation - not just of the animals, but of the whole idea of exclusive tourism. Staying consistent Theroux also derided as reverse zoos the mass tourism as exemplified in Etosha Pan Park.
He ventured across Namibia’s northern border into the war devastated regions of southern Angola. There Theroux found little of value. Officials were rude and people mired in nothingness. There was no indigenous economy, only an influx of hated Chinese. A chance encounter with a traditional tribal rite during a bus breakdown offered only a glimpse into what values the community might have possessed. The Angolan cities were even worse; cesspools of humanity, slums surrounding a collapsing core where the corrupt rich held off the despair of the masses. Several brave intellectuals predicted that revolution must come, but most just wanted to leave. Theroux’s criticism of German rule was harsh, but his excoriation of Portuguese colonialism and its legacies, including the current ruling class, was scabrous.
Finally, Theroux had enough. He (correctly) concluded that venturing further north through the bush, the zone verda - green zone- of the title, would provide no new experiences, nor would visits to the mega cities of Kinshasa, Lagos and elsewhere. So he went home.
What is the value of the book? It is well written and does provide lots of descriptions and opinions on contemporary Africa that a reader is not likely to find elsewhere. Well reasoned outspokenness certainly adds to understanding of places and peoples. This book makes that contribution.