The Last Train to Zona Verde by Paul Theroux


Hamish Hamilton, 353 pp


Civil war has an enormity that is all its own. A volunteer I knew, who had spent a year in Bosnia, was left unable to articulate his experience. For a long time in the 1980s a strip of no-man’s land, known as the Green Line, gouged its way through Beirut. Crossing it a few times, as I did, gave the hint of civil war but not much more than a hint. When the world descended on South Africa on December 15th it was to do honour. Although barely spoken, it was to do honour that civil war had not taken place.

The world was kind in its comments. It took a South African commentator, in the form of R. W. Johnson, to state acerbically that the country’s governing party, like the Trade Union Congress, is severing on ethnic lines. Paul Theroux in South Africa for The Last Train to Zona Verde sees little of this. He observes tourists and is robbed of his credit card; the theft racks up forty-eight thousand dollars’ worth of computers, car, shoes and a lot of sunglasses before he is aware of it. His destination is Angola, the country to the north whose civil war, following the withdrawal of the colonial power, endured twenty-seven years.

Paul TherouxHe takes the land route crossing the border into Angola from Namibia. Theroux is a uncommon traveller, of some boldness, to a country that is barely visited and, outside the capital, unreported. His is a savage piece of reportage, evidence that an abundance of natural resource usually condemns its owner country to poverty. It is oil-drowned Nigeria and Venezuela, which have the greatest of difficulties in sustaining electricity supply. But before Angola, the first four-sevenths of Theroux’s book is a ruminative trip as much about the author and the genre of travel writing as about the lands through which he journeys.

Theroux first wrote of Africa in the 1960s when he was a teacher in Malawi. Now he calls himself ‘a seventy-year-old-man travelling like a backpacker.’ His first chapter is one of dismay, encountering ‘a desperate people, sad static unhoping souls, not indestructible as I’d thought, but badly in need of rescue.’ He may start his day in a luxury hotel within sight of Table Mountain but he writes of himself as ‘yawning toothily like a baboon.’ A group of tourists later in a safari resort have their humanity reduced to ‘red faces and eyes bulging eyes gleaming in the heat … clamouring for the platters of roast kudu and sliced chicken.’

Tourism takes on forms in which the author is both observer and participant. With the attractions both animal and human ‘poverty porn’ Kenya is reduced to ‘game parks and slums’, Tanzania to ‘colourful Masai herders and urban shantytowns’, and Malawi to ‘lakeshore luxury and one million AIDS orphans.’ In Gunguletu he sees a group of Italians on a township tour who would never dare enter the Naples that Roberto Saviano described in Gomorrah. A town in the shadow of Stellenbosch ‘with its wineries and university’ is home to the Lwandle Migrant Labour Museum. He hears the cadence of Julius Malema and his anthem to shoot, shoot. Further north Windhoek puts the writer in mind of New Jersey. Newark, he notes, has a school graduation rate that is lower and rates of homicide and robbery that are higher by several degrees. In addition ‘Windhoekians are, however, demonstrably more polite.’

The traveller travels alone but books, and memories of books, are his companions. A stay-over in a small town, Ondangwa, prompts an attack on Graham Greene: ‘misleadingly romantic.’ On a bus out of Windhoek he discusses Pynchon’s novels: ‘a bloodless literary affectation that made them almost unreadable to me.’ In Cape Town he is reading Frederick Prokosch, a writer admired by Bruce Chatwin. Theroux calls his last chapter ‘What am I doing here?’, a reference to Chatwin’s posthumous collection of miscellania.

Chatwin gets a swipe: ‘habitually fictionalised his travel writings, punching up mild episodes and giving them drama, turning a few days in a place into a long and knowledgeable residence.’ So too Laurens van der Post: ‘made a crepuscular and existential narrative out of a fairly conventional few months of bushwhacking with a team of hearties in the Mlanje region of tea estates.’

Luanda, Angola’s capital, is the world’s most expensive. Theroux’s report from the country outside the capital is bleakness without redemption. Firstly it is a land without animals. Elsewhere antelope, gazelle and impala are ubiquitous, baboon and hyena lurking around human settlement. Theroux records that Angola has been stripped of wildlife, first for food, then killed by landmines left on an industrial scale by the country’s war.

‘Angolans lived among rubbish heaps’ he writes ‘plastic bottles, soda cans, torn bags, broken chairs, dead dogs, rotting food, indefinable slop, their own tattered twists of excrement and in one town a stack of dead cows’. A place called Benfica he calls ‘Chechnya and North Korea and coastal derelict Brazil, places without a single redeeming feature.’ The government is not one of a totalitarian drive but ‘utterly uninterested in its people.’ ‘It was a government of greed and thievery, determined to exclude anyone else from sharing.’

Theroux makes many sightings of the new wave of arrivals, no different from any other visitors from beyond Africa. The Chinese in Angola, says an insider, number seventy thousand, the first arrivals criminals shipped in as slave labour, many staying on to acquire wealth. ‘Like the other adventurers in Africa, the Chinese are exploiters … in alliance with the dictators and bureaucrats whom they pay off.’ Angola in this century is no different from Tibet in the last on ‘a mission to plunder.’

Angola is rich in oil and rich in cash. In fact cash is the only means of exchange. For the expatriate on a hardship posting a ticket home to the USA means a trip to the airline office with four thousand dollars’ worth of kwanza notes. So much cash begets an army of muggers that begets compounds of privilege with private water, power, pools, guards and dogs.

Even the Angola of fiction differs from that elsewhere in Africa. The books that Theroux seeks out are empty of tribal life, independence, political identity. ‘The Angolan novel’ that he reads ‘is an anarchic and multicultural hodgepodge, as self-referential, incestuous, and homegrown an artefact as everything else in isolated and xenophobic Angola.’

Potent prose but the reader wonders about his rancid generalisation that the ‘broken, unspeakable’ cities of sub-Saharan Africa are all the same, ‘an agglomeration of desperate people, a static mob that feels safer in its greater numbers’. The last report I had on the region came from a twenty-year-old American fresh from a year in Ghana. Accra had left her enthralled, energised and optimistic.