TDA July Book Review – The Last Train to Zona Verde
The Last Train to Zona Verde – Paul Theroux
In the final chapter of Theroux’s anti-travel travel, novel, he keeps asking himself, ‘What am I doing here?’, over and over again. And I could not help but wonder then what I was doing still reading his book at that point.’ The Last Train to Zona Verde’ is bound to leave you feeling morbidly depressed, not only about the African continent, but the world in general. Throw in Paul Theroux’s tedious grappling with his mortality and his peculiar obsession with urban and rural African squalor and depravity and you will start thinking of surfing the travel channels from the safety of your couch.
I rather enjoyed his previous African jaunt, Dark Star Safari, and more so The Great Railway Bazaar, despite his jaundice eye, very subtle racism masquerading as irony and dark comedy, and inflated ego. The man can turn a beautiful phrase when he is on a roll. His brave adventures into the back roads are admirable as is his very public display of trying to understand the political and social heartbeat of the various countries. However, reading The Last Train, especially the first and last chapter, was like chewing on an old sweaty sock.
The book opens with his description of the Namibian Ju’hoansi people, ‘I then resumed kicking behind a file of small-bodied, mostly naked men and women who were quick-stepping under a sky fretted with golden fire…pouch-breasted women laughing among themselves, an infant with a head like a fuzzy fruit bobbing in one woman’s sling, men in leather clouts clutching spears and bows – and I was thinking, as I’d thought for years traveling the earth among humankind: The best of them are bare-assed.’
And so he continues describing what he sees and experiences, his opinion, ego, tiresome philosophizing, and amateur stabs at anthropology, drowning out the essence of the people and a balanced view of the land. The Ju’hoansi people perform a demonstration of their traditional way of life for him and he is utterly gutted when he discovers it is all just a show. I find this incredibly naïve for a man who has lived in Africa for many years and extensively explored the continent.
His endless rants about celebs, such as Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and Bono, providing aid in Africa, feel petty and become tiresome. His commentary and thoughts appear schizophrenic at times as he laments that traveling through perfectly pretty seaside villages leaves him slightly bored and with nothing to write. Yet when he tosses himself in the great writing fodder of African squalor and misery he gets squeamish, homesick and depressed. It’s a little confusing.
Perhaps the most difficult bit to handle is his repetitive references to the squalor, bandits, beggars, filth and utter desperation that for him makes up the sum of Angola. ‘That was how Angolan laughter sounded to me – insane and chattering and agonic, like an amplified death rattle.’ For him Angola is only ‘broken signs, slumping power cables, burst-open boxes of garbage, a tidemark of muddy litter, a muttonish smell in the air as of goat breath and decayed meat.’
Maybe this is an accurate description of Angola, I have never been. But I have traveled through the armpit of countries and it’s never just all decrepitude and despair. I suspect it is more a sign of Theroux’s travel weary mind urging him to go home. And he himself finally admits it at the end when he ironically doesn’t even make the last train to Zona Verde.
Despite the above criticism I would recommend the book purely for its chapters on South Africa. Skip the utterly boring bit where he rambles on about living in his super luxurious hotel and everything he ate there, yawn, and go straight to his description of the political situation in South Africa. It is brilliantly written, spot on, and a hilarious take on our bizarre leaders and their shenanigans. In South Africa we have visitors, mostly foreigners, to some of our worst townships and squatter camps. We call it township tours and applaud it for innovation. Theroux calls it poverty porn, which I found rather apt and darkly humorous, because of the truth of it.
Oddly enough it appears that Theroux, the budding historian and amateur anthropologist, is the one travel writer who has made a living out of writing about how much he hates traveling.