Now 72, prolific American novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux refuses to stay at home and relax. But his latest trip may be his last to Africa.
His account of it is lively, informative and opinionated, describing people he meets and places he visits with equal eloquence. You marvel at his fearless persistence in venturing where few tourists ever go.
Theroux's fascination with Africa dates back to the 1960s, when he was a young Peace Corps teacher in Malawi. That experience triggered his early fiction, like the hilarious novel Jungle Lovers.
This latest adventure, a 2011 trip through West Africa -- primarily Namibia and Angola -- is kind of an extension of the journey he made from Cairo to Cape Town 10 years earlier (documented in his book Dark Star Safari). What he sees not only confirms his notions about the beauty of the bush and the squalor of the cities but also gives rise to serious introspection ("What am I doing here?").
The title and the cover photograph suggest a train trip; some of Theroux's most famous books deal with train travel -- The Great Railway Bazaar (through Asia), The Old Patagonian Express (South America), Riding the Iron Rooster (China). But "the last train to zona verde" turns out to be a metaphor; this would be the last time he visited zona verde, or the green zone -- in other words, "the bush -- everything that was not a city." As his story unfolds, he explains why.
His mode of transportation is the bus, wherever he can find one, or a battered taxi that he shares with locals. When crossing a border, he likes to walk: "It's a thrill to go on foot from one country to another, a mere pedestrian exchanging countries, treading the theoretical inked line that is shown on maps."
While he continually confronts misery and blight, he does have some enjoyable encounters: stumbling upon a coming-of-age or nubility celebration for teen girls; going on safari aboard a big-eared African elephant -- "the largest land animal in the world, highly intelligent, independent, and family-minded."
Theroux is critical of foreign aid to Africa, which is usually wasted. He does cite cases where the money is used for actual development, but they are few. (This topic is well-explored in ex-Winnipegger Larry Krotz's 2008 book The Uncertain Business of Doing Good.)
Angola is one of the most enigmatic countries Theroux has ever visited. Once a Portuguese penal colony and now rich in oil, diamonds and gold, Angola has dire poverty and extreme unemployment.
Any construction is being done by imported Chinese workers. The money is in the hands of the "megalomaniacal head of state" and his corrupt cronies; most officials -- police officers, for example -- thrive on bribes. City streets abound in prostitutes and drunken men.
Since foreigners cannot enter Angola without a letter of invitation, Theroux arranged to teach part-time in an Angolan school.
He makes many friends; some even dare to be critical of their government. Most of the students he meets want badly to leave the country, preferably for the United States.
Southern Angola was a war zone for decades before the country became independent in the 1970s. It is bereft of wild animals, partly because of the estimated two million land mines planted in the countryside during wartime.
Profits from oil alone are $40 billion a year, yet, as one person points out, the infant mortality rate is ridiculously high, the roads are terrible, the housing is awful, and people don't have water. "Angolans lived among garbage heaps -- plastic bottles, soda cartons, torn bags, broken chairs, dead dogs, rotting food, indefinable slop, their own scattered twists of excrement -- and in one town a stack of dead cows, bloated from putrefaction, looking like a forgotten freight-load of discarded Victorian furniture."
All of which leads Theroux to conclude that he need not see this "poisoned, populous Africa" again. He is finished with "this sort of travel, marinated in politics and urban wreckage.... There is a world elsewhere."
Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg writer who once travelled to Chicago to interview Paul Theroux.