Paul Theroux has long held the title of Dean of Travel Writers, as well as being an accomplished novelist and insightful literary and social critic. He started off his career in Africa where he taught for six years, and wrote about his travels around the continent. In his most recent travel book, The Last Train To Zona Verde—Overland From Cape Town To Angola (The Penguin Group, 2013), Theroux brings a thoughtful perspective unavailable to anyone without his experience in Africa.
Theroux uses what could be called an anthropological approach to travel and writing about it. He travels alone and without an itinerary. He knows the trajectory which he wants to travel, and trusts to provenience to get him there, getting to know the country, and the people from observation and talking with whomever he meets along the way, getting a true feel for the country.
Visiting the shacks and shanty towns of Cape Town which he had seen ten years before, he discovers functional concrete block structures with waterlines and sewers in place. Utilitarian, but bleak without any vegetation in sight, and the slums, shacks and shanty towns stretch further out away from the city, a seemingly unending sprawl of poverty.
He leaves and travels north, Ondangwa sets near enough to the Angola border to have the chaos of that country seep through. Theroux writes:
“All national boundaries attract temporary people, as well as rejects and immigrants and fixers. At this limit of the country, far from the capital, normal rules did not apply. People did whatever they could get away with. The presence of a border fence meant that no one really belonged there. Such a fringe area lacked any identity except its own fraying face, and attracted mostly fugitives and hustlers. I was one of the desperadoes, a fugitive. I had not business here.”
After years of warfare, Angola is devoid of wildlife, but that does not prevent Theroux from stopping at Abu Camp in Nambibia where he rides an elephant, and shoots pictures of the exotic wildlife which is available to wealthy tourists paying up to $3,000 a day.
Theroux encounters many Chinese in Angola, and discovers the first Chinese to arrive were criminals who worked off their sentences onshore, and lived offshore on ships, and many if not most of them stayed after serving out their sentences because “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away.” and becoming very successful by African standards.
“Every time I encountered Chinese in the hinterland, I felt I was seeing the future of Africa—not a happy future, and not a distant one, but the foreseeable future. They were a new breed of settler, practical, unsentimental, mainly construction workers and do-it-yourselfers and small businessmen, hard to please but willing to put up with tougher conditions than any Portuguese.
Some Africa watchers and Western economists have observed that the Chinese presence in Africa—a sudden intrusion—is salutary and will result in greater development and more opportunities for Africans. Seeing Chinese digging into Africa, isolated in their enterprises, offhand with Africans to the point of rudeness, and deaf to any suggestion that they moderate their self-serving ways, I tend to regard this positive view as a crock. My own feeling is that like the other adventurers in Africa, the Chinese are exploiters. They have no compact or agreement or involvement with the African people; theirs is an alliance with the dictators and bureaucrats whom they pay off and allow to govern abusively—a conspiracy. Theirs is a racket like those of all the previous colonizers, and it will end badly—maybe worse, because the Chinese are tenacious, richer, and heavily invested, and for them there is no going back and no surrender. As they walked into Tibet and took over (without a voice of protest raised by anyone in the West), they are walking into the continent and, outspending any other adventurer, subverting Africans, with a mission to plunder.”
Theroux describes how foreigners hear the laughter of the Angolans and think them happy people. He sees it as frenetic laughter, an hysteria of over-stimulation bordering on panic. The frenzy of the doomed with nothing to do, like Thucydides’s description of the people in the plague of Athens. Kalunga Lima, a documentary film maker who Theroux was to collaborate with said, “This is what the world will look like when it ends.”
Unfortunately Theroux was unable to collaborate with Lima on Angola’s giant sable antelope, an antelope which lives nowhere else in the world, because before anything could take place Lima died from a heart attack at his home in Lubango, an apparent complication from scuba diving a couple of days before, some trapped oxygen bursting in his heart.
Another friend Theroux made during this trip, Mathew, an Australian elephant trainer who was living out his dream at Abu Camp, was trampled to death by the cow elephant in his charge.
A third friend he made, Rui da Camara Sousa of Restinga, a descendant of a well-known Portuguese governor of Benguella, a college professor, a real estate entrepreneur, and a native born Angolan, was murdered. His son and daughter both said he had no enemies, yet his skull was crushed in by an intruder.
Theroux ends this book with a chapter which asks the question: What am I doing here? His insights into that are well worth reading, as indeed, is the entire book. This is a special read because Theroux’s acknowledges it will be his last travel book. Truly an era is ending. This book contains a wealth of insights, and this reviewer encourages everyone to read it.