Remember your favorite grandparent — the one who was smart, sweet, funny, and wise, if a bit cranky and repetitive? “The Last Train to Zona Verde,” Paul Theroux’s latest (and, the 72-year-old hints, his last) major travel book, is a lot like that.
Now, before the charges of ageism start flying, understand that Theroux likely would embrace this comparison. In fact, if “The Last Train” is a book about Africa, it’s also a book about growing old — about the positives and negatives of both. Theroux’s travel writing, as he once wrote in “The Great Railway Bazaar,” blends fiction, journalism, and autobiography. It makes sense that in this new book Theroux’s age becomes a character, a thing rattling around amid the rail cars, even when he doesn’t actually intend it.
The “zona verde” in Theroux’s title means, roughly, the African bush, or everywhere that isn’t a city. It’s where Theroux has always headed in his books — by train, by car, by foot. He dismisses the charter-loving tourists and “much-traveled millionaires” who have descended on even Africa. (In 2011, the year of Theroux’s travels, Namibia welcomed a million foreign visitors.) His plan is simple: In “Dark Star Safari,” another of his classics, he started in Cairo and worked down; this time, he starts in Cape Town and works up.
“The Last Train” provides Theroux’s normal pleasures. There are lessons in local history, theology, and etymology, though they never feel stuffy. There are terrific descriptions — “an infant with a head like fuzzy fruit bobbing in one woman’s sling.” There are flashes of comedy, such as when he spots “that rarest of workers in Africa, a street sweeper — two of them, actually.” There are wonderful sentences. When Theroux describes some cinder-block architecture, a necessary but cliché moment in most travel narratives, he does so with a simple, gorgeous rhythm — “rows of square, flat-topped cinderblock huts, dusted brown from blowing grit.”
Those huts are in Swakopmund, one of the nicer cities Theroux visits. (It’s where Angelina Jolie gave birth to Shiloh.) There’s no question Africa has serious problems. “[S]o much that I saw in Angola was improvised or imported or crooked,” Theroux writes, and those adjectives apply to most of the countries (and most of the leaders) he encounters.
Western aid has not helped, in his opinion. Many economists support this view, and so do a few Africans. In one South African slum, a young man tells Theroux, “Your Bill Gates helped us with the cultural center.” They walk to it and find “[f]our unused computers, with grubby keyboards and blind screens.”
But Africa still offers some remarkable people, and Theroux is at his best when he tells their stories, happy and sad. When a nonprofit screens a seminal documentary about the Ju/’hoansi and their hunting rituals, an elderly chieftain catches a glimpse of his brother as a child. “Thank you for this film,” he says. “This is like a dream for me.”
Theroux writes at length about his excitement at meeting the Ju/’hoansi, in whom he hopes to see an authentic tribal Africa. At that screening, however, the schoolchildren seem as amazed by the rituals as any viewer of the National Geographic channel would be. Theroux travels to a Ju/’hoansi community and discovers a traditional village on one side and a cluster of new huts, where everyone lives, on the other. Taking this as authentic, he realizes, would be “like taking the reenactment at Plimoth Plantation, and its employees dressed as Pilgrims, for the reality of life south of Boston today.”
This dialectic — where Theroux advances an idea, then allows himself to be contradicted — drives his finest work. It happens here with foreign aid, at least partially, as he watches a nonprofit help the Ju/’hoansi record oral histories. (“If these foreigners hadn’t done it,” he admits, “no one would have done it.”) It’s why you finish a Paul Theroux book both more informed and less assured.
Unfortunately, “The Last Train” does not always live up to that ideal. The personal sections feel monotonous and detail-free — perhaps because the author needed to pad his book after cutting the trip short. “[W]hat lay before me was a grubby and unrewarding itinerary of West African cities,” he decides, barely a third into his journey.
And so he stops. “It has nothing to do with my age,” he writes. (Actually, he writes that twice.) But I’m not so sure. Frustrated by those cities, where more than half of Africa now lives, Theroux chooses his assumptions over an adventure. Of course, it’s awfully easy to criticize him from the comfort of one’s reading chair. But Theroux’s great mission had always been to transport us beyond that reading chair, to challenge himself — and thus, to challenge us.
Craig Fehrman is working on a book about presidents and their books. E-mail email@example.com.