New Paul Theroux Book about Africa
Forty years ago, author Paul Theroux landed in the country of Malawi to work as a Peace Corps volunteer. Not only did he teach English in a rural setting, he wrote what he thought were magazine articles for a European publisher, until finding out that his written assessments about Malawi’s dictator were being paid for by a German espionage agency. This unpredictability about writing and travel hooked him.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has just published Theroux’s latest book: The Last Train to Zona Verde – My Ultimate African Safari.
This is another non-fiction travel book, the same genre Theroux began mastering when his assembled his book The Great Railway Bazaar, published in 1975.
This time, Theroux explores South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Angola. This time, he uncharacteristically turns down the offer of riding a train twice. The word ‘ultimate’ in the title does not refer to this African excursion as being the best; it refers to it as being his last.
Theroux’s travel writing captivates an audience because it is fresh, honest, and eclectic – typically including interviews with random locals, philosophical ramblings, and brazen candor about nasty locales we’d prefer to read about than actually visit.
Many years ago I was inspired to join the Peace Corps by Theroux’s writings, and coincidentally served in the same country where he did – Malawi. After that, my next two work stints took me to live in Namibia, and then Angola. Partially inspired by Theroux, I wrote three individual books about these countries (the photos on this page come from those books). Obviously, this book by Theroux appeals to me.
Theroux begins by highlighting what inspired him to hit the trail again, quoting a piece from an essay by Henry David Thoreau: “I believe the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things.” Theroux also enjoys the simple pleasures of being able to do whatever he pleases when he travels solo: “All solitary travel offers a sort of special license allowing you to be anyone you want to be.”
During his wanderings and encounters with Ju/’hoansi people in rural locales, as well as slum dwellers outside of Cape Town, he reflects on a truth that occurred after he began writing his travel books: that half of the population of the world now lives in urban settings. He writes, “…as Elias Canetti points out in Crowds and Power, people feel more secure in a crowd; so they flee the emptiness and insecurity of the countryside to seek consolation in an urban slum crowd, even a futureless and filthy one…”
His glowing description of Windhoek, capital of Namibia, is as accurate as his disparaging portrait of Luanda – Angola’s capital. His insights into the obvious disparity between rich and poor also pepper a hefty percentage of his observations.
“Namibia is a land of extremes…While Namibia has one of the highest literacy rates and per capita incomes in Africa, it ranks near the bottom in land and income distribution.”
Regarding this iniquity, Theroux saves his heftiest criticism for Angola, a country where it is deserved because of the billions of dollars in oil revenue the government takes in, and does little to redistribute. “But, this being Angola, it was the rich, and only the rich, who appeared to me sluttish and criminal. In the bush there existed the possibility of renewal: a new season, a new crop, a new water source.”
Theroux comments at least twice about his retirement age (he is in his seventies). The vitriol of much of the writing that characterizes many of his travel pieces has mellowed considerably in this book, the mark of an author who has written many of the books he has wanted to, taken a fair share of the trips he has yearned for, and has not the slightest compunction of admitting when he knows that it is time for a trip to end. Theroux makes his decision not to continue the trip based on unstable and dangerous geopolitics within the next countries he had planned to visit. But it’s obvious that – this time – he has no regret in ending the journey. Like Steinbeck wrote about his drive around the United States in the book Travels with Charley – In Search of America, there comes a time when you know the trip is over, and it is simply time to go home.
But while this book lasts, you’ll enjoy the journey.