The Last Train to Zona Verde: Overland from Cape Town to Angola
By Paul Theroux
(Hamish Hamilton 353pp £20)
‘I am not an Afro-pessimist,’ writes Paul Theroux, looking back on a journey that has taken him from the slums of Cape Town to the musseques of Luanda. You could have fooled me. The Last Train to Zona Verde is imbued with a pessimism that verges on Afrophobia, peppered with sweeping, doom-laden conclusions about the state of Africa, triggered by a trip that takes in but a fraction of a vast continent.
Given the nature of most of the stops on Theroux’s journey, the gloomy tone is not surprising. It begins with Khayelitsha and Guguletu, the Cape’s two sinkholes of humanity; takes in northern Namibia, ‘a land of drunken men, idle boys and overworked women’; visits the Kalahari home of what an eminent anthropologist calls ‘the most victimized and brutalized people in the bloody history that is southern Africa’; and ends up in Angola, a country cursed by its huge oil wealth, which has been siphoned off to personal overseas accounts by members of a regime as corrupt as any in Africa.
If the destinations are depressing, the manner of travel seems intended to make things worse. Theroux relishes his discomfort, which he wears like a hair shirt, chronicling nights spent in seedy dosshouses; hour upon hour in miserable buses with shouting, jostling passengers, peeing children and dying chickens; and unpleasant encounters with aggressive border officials.
His experience of Luanda, the noisome capital of Angola, proved too much. Something in Theroux snapped, and he lets rip:
“I seemed to be traveling into greater misery … the misery of Africa, 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”.
He had contemplated taking the train from Luanda to Malanje, some 265 miles inland, where a zona verde was said to be home to much of what remains of the country’s wildlife. Theroux lets it leave without him. ‘What am I doing here?’ he asks, time and again.
Plans to end his journey at the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu are dropped. Travelling to ‘squalid cities and fetid slums’, he writes, requires
“all the skill and temperament of a proctologist … deft in rectal exams … staring solemnly … up its fundament and trawling through its intestines, making the grand colonic tour … [which] pretty much describes the experience of traveling from one African city to another, especially the horror cities of urbanized West Africa”.
This is schoolboy stuff, gratuitously offensive, a crude and ignorant portrayal of Africa as arsehole, refusing to acknowledge the many ways the continent is changing for the better. There’s not a word on the new breed of African entrepreneur, the computer whizz kids, the spread of the mobile phone and its impact on democracy; no mention of the renaissance in art, literature, fashion and music, or the surge of foreign investment and the competition for Africa’s minerals, oil and farmland.
It is an omission that undermines Theroux’s credibility and the book’s effect. This is a pity, because he does more than bemoan the current state of the continent; he also mourns the loss of an Africa long gone, which he captures in two poignant portraits. He is at his best when he describes the fate of the Kalahari people known as Ju/’hoansi. These former fleet-footed bush-dwellers have become sedentary town folk reliant on hand-outs, and face extermination through alcohol and Western mores. The other image is of a group of wretched elephants, rescued from captivity only to be prodded into servitude, providing rides for guests at a $4,000-a-day game lodge in the Okavango Delta. They represent the fate of Africa’s fast-disappearing wildlife, destined for game parks that are becoming little more than glorified zoos.
Theroux, of course, is no stranger to Africa. His experience of the continent goes back to the 1960s, when he worked for six years as a teacher in Malawi and as a university lecturer in Uganda – ‘the freest period of my life’. In 2002 he travelled overland from Cairo to Cape Town. The result was Dark Star Safari, where his frustration and irritation with Africa were already apparent. His latest journey, almost certainly his last in Africa, ends on a bleak note, envisaging a continent whose population of one billion will – according to Theroux – double in four years, doomed to subsist in slum cities and burnt-out villages, ill-governed and insecure.
He used to travel, he writes, with ‘no idea where I was going, but it was a joy to be on the move’. Paul Theroux has lost that joy and without it his writing loses much of its magic. The Last Train to Zona Verde is nevertheless a tale worth heeding. But no longer does one relish the company of an observant, knowledgeable guide; instead one travels with an embittered and introspective old cynic who cannot wait to get home.
Michael Holman, brought up in Zimbabwe, is a former Africa editor of the Financial Times. His satire on aid, the Last Orders at Harrods trilogy, is published by Polygon.
This review will be published in the June issue of the London Literary Review