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A Trip to the End of the World
on April 17, 2015
Travel with Paul Theroux is always an enlightening, but rarely uplifting, experience. He is a gifted writer whose prose unlocks vivid images and portraits of exotic places and peoples, this time in southwest Africa. In "The Last Train to Zona Verde" (a term used in parts of Africa to describe the "bush"), Mr. Theroux refuses to let the reader turn a blind eye to the desperation, hopelessness, and plight of the swath of Africa through which he journeys. And that is precisely what we can most appreciate in him. Few would go where he has gone, and even fewer could write with such elegance and veracity about the experience.
Mr. Theroux was no stranger to Africa when he journeyed there for his final adventure chronicled in "Zona Verde". As a youth, he spent many years in Africa; as a traveler, a schoolteacher, and a writer. In this final saga, he makes a nostalgic return to the continent almost a half a century later for what he senses from the outset will be his final journey there.
Mr. Theroux struggles with what he characterizes as his own"voyerism of gawking at poverty". He starts out in Cape Town, eschewing the glamorous side of this fashionable town and clambering to "go slumming" in the outskirts of the city. High society and the beautiful side of life seem to bore him. He rationalizes that his desire to travel is not like other "tourists" (he calls himself a "traveler"): he is a writer looking for mutability, what has changed over time, and to opine on whether change has been for the better. He rarely seems to conclude that it has.
Who, according to Mr. Theroux, is a traveler? Ideally, it is one whose journey is a laborious quest into the unknown. Mr. Theroux admonishes that reading one of his books, although stimulating, is no substitute for travel. He takes us via every conceivable mode of public transportation and on foot, dragging us through the mud, so to speak, across hostile borders. I am no armchair tourist, but I think I will skip the fly-infested chicken legs and endless garbage heaps he describes, but am happy to experience all he encounters vicariously.
From sterility in the aftermath of the civil war, to the slow but steady ascendency of the new Chinese colonialism, Mr. Theroux, undeterred by warnings and, indeed, somewhat stimulated by them, takes us on a journey through one of the most corrupt and godforsaken countries on earth - Angola. He peels back layer after rotten layer of corruption and destitution in a country nonetheless dripping in gold, oil, and diamonds. This is Mr. Theroux at his best, and humanity at its worst.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Theroux is not a huge enthusiast of the multitude of NGOs and other humanitarian efforts in Africa and their attempts to raise the bar in education and living standards. He sees such efforts as largely having failed in their quest. He perceives corruption as the main impediment to success despite billions in aid poured into the continent.
On his journey, Mr. Theroux finds one bright spot in remote Tsumkwee, in northwest Namibia. There he visits NGO-sponsored schools where he is invited to speak. But impressed as he is in this remote village by the cleanliness of the children, the level of their English, and eagerness of their desire to learn, he nonetheless expresses skepticism about the ability of these children to find future opportunities in their own country. Here, at least, foreign aid dollars appeared to be making some difference.
Mr. Theroux is nostalgic in "The Last Train to Zona Verde", not just for his earlier days of travel, but also for his youth. "As a young man, I never entertained this idea of death in travel. I had set off for Africa almost fifty years ago with the notion that my life had at last begun." But time inevitably transmutes his perception, "During my last few long trips I often thought that I might die. I was not alone in that fear; it is the rational conjecture of most travelers I know, especially the ones about my age."
With this swan song, Mr. Theroux is at his zenith as a travel writer, but also as a travel philosopher now more in touch with his own mortality. "This is what the world will look like when it ends," he writes as he nears his final destination outside Luanda, Angola. It is as though he traveled to the end of the earth to render the final strokes of his pen.