Review of Paul Theroux's(Malawi 1963-65)The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate Safari

The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate Safari
by Paul Theroux (Nyasaland/Malawi 1963-1965)
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27
353 pages
May 2013

Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000-02, Madagascar 2002-03)

OUR OWN PAUL THEROUX has been on a tear; readers of my reviews know how much I admired last year’s novel The Lower River, and this year’s offering, The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari, is equally good, though a travelogue. The cover image is a lonely railroad track heading off into the dense and engulfing green of the African forest. But that’s a red herring to make his train book fans think that’s what they’ll be getting. Theroux is rarely on trains on this journey from Cape Town to Angola. Now in his seventies, he’s mostly on bush taxis and local transport, slowly banging over ruined roads. Imagine that; an aging writer of rare accomplishment suffering the worst travel hardships the world has to offer? In our milieu of the insipidly glorified “bucket list,” of silly travel reality shows and “man vs. nature” buffoonery, can America have any idea what sitting in a packed African minivan in the heat at a dangerous and chaotic border crossing really means?

Theroux has billed this one as his “ultimate” African safari, “ultimate” in the sense of “last,” “final,” “never again before I die.” For those who equate “ultimate” with bungee jumping, white water rafting, parachuting from the stratosphere backed by Red Bull and millions of dollars, his grim little jaunt up the western coast of southern Africa will seem confusing and inconsumable indeed. They won’t understand that a military checkpoint in the African bush can shock one’s nerves more than any canned adventure could hope to try, that navigating slums one step ahead of a gang of unemployed and shifty-eyed youths makes one’s heart race much more than any X-Games. It’s remarkable what this tough old man is willing to endure. His trip would be mentally and physically extreme at any age; it easily conjured my most-traumatic African memories.  His eye for detail keeps the pages turning; his plethora of arcane tidbits keeps the reader feeling informed line-by-line.

We visit South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Angola in this book; it’s naturally an anatomy of the ugliest race relations on the planet, as any honest writing about southern Africa must and should be. We sip wine with a view of Table Mountain among wealthy, cultured whites; suddenly Theroux takes us into the desperate black township in the shadow of the glittering city. We enjoy German beer in a pub full of rugby fans in Windhoek; Theroux never fails to note the hungry, ragged boys silently waiting just outside the door for a chance to eat our left over French fries. There’s an occasional well-maintained girl’s school with happy students supported by Swedish charities here and there to break this otherwise pitiless assessment of contemporary Africa, but those are few and far between. Theroux is relentless in documenting the unending injustice and poverty along his route; one might argue-especially after the grubby nightmare that was Malawi in his The Lower River-that Theroux in his old age has lost the ability to see anything but despair in Africa. But the other argument, the stronger one, is that Theroux writes about poverty in Africa because that’s what’s there.

“I was soon in a world of roadblocks and mobs,” Theroux writes of the book’s nervously anticipated crossing into war-devastated Angola,” of terrible roads or no roads at all, a world of lies and scamming and crooked policemen . . . The hotels were terrible, the food was filthy, the people were suspicious and occasionally hostile. The roadside was littered with broken glass and crushed soda cans. A foul smell hung over it all-the stink of the latrines of poverty, smoking garbage heaps, diesel fumes, and, at roadside stands, yellow dough balls frying in hot fat. The weather was exhausting-very hot, no shade, no rain…It was also a world of abuse, a world of ‘Meester, why are you here?’ Which was a good question-why was I here?”

The reason Theroux subjects himself to this torturous journey is Angola. While the first half of the book is somewhat gentler and takes in the mundane tourist sights of South Africa and Namibia-game parks and a staged ‘bush’ experience with San hunter-gatherers who are little more than the African equivalent of minimum wage workers in period garb in Colonial Williamsburgn — the second half is an excoriating broadsheet against the plunder of Angola’s oil money by its despots, and the hell its people unnecessarily endure because of it. Angola is essentially a closed country to all but foreign oil investors; it’s certainly not open to anyone who would want to record what actually goes on there. But Theroux-having finagled a requisite invitation and visa, ostensibly to give an academic lecture-spends every moment in Angola taking notes on what is clearly a personal investigative mission. He so lacerates the inequities-all unnecessary he reminds us again and again-that one wonders what sort of literary good he could do if he could weasel his way into North Korea. He’s done a good thing here; recorded for us an underreported, and very sad, rape of a mass of helpless people by a coterie of thugs who we Westerners empower for oil.

Theroux’s recent writing in this book and the last is better than much of his work of the past years. He senses mortality closing in on him, and it’s given him sharpness and urgency.

Paul Theroux (Nyasaland/Malawi 1963–65), author of many well-regarded books, is the greatest writer the Peace Corps has produced.

Reviewer Tony D’Souza’s  (Ivory Coast 2000–02, Madagascar 2002–03)recently received the National Association of Black Journalist’s Award for Investigative Reporting, and is a finalist for Society of Professional Journalists prizes including the Sunshine State Award for Investigative Reporting and a Green Eyeshade Award.

4 Comments

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  • I agree with you Tony- something has happened to Mr. Theroux’s writing. Whereas early travel books seemed to exagerate his personal dsilikes (bordering on arrogance) while hiding some painful truth (like his impending divorce in The Old Patagonian Express), this book gives the impression of honesty, humility and even kindness. He paints a brutal picture but then again, based upon his almost constant travel to Africa over decades, maybe it is an accurate depiction.

    I drove three hours to hear him speak at a book signing in Corte Madera. I have listened to many authors over the years. Aside from Jose Emilio Pacheco, Mexico’s premier poet and novelist, Theroux was the most polished. His presentation was liberally sweetened with the word “kind.” At one point, he spoke about young authors and asked the audience to be supportive without condition since one never knows where an interest will take someone.

    Afterwards, I met him and exchanged a few words about La Ceiba, Honduras where I served part of my Peace Corps experience. Mosquito Coast mentions La Ceiba in passing. Since the book was released in 1981, I always wondered if we had crossed paths. He was very patient with my silly question, “1979. I was there in 1979 and you?” and equally generous with candid comments about Honduras.

    I am on a second reading of this book and recommend it for anyone willing to look at unairbrushed African images.

  • The Lower River was perhaps the most difficult book I have ever read. It was terrifying. But, when Theroux writes, I am obligated to read. I will read “The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate Safari.”

    Thank you, Tony, for this review.

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