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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.
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on August 4, 2013
When you choose to take up the reading of one of Paul Theroux's travel books you are taking on a personal story. This is nowhere more the case than with Theroux's latest trip and book ZONA VERDE. I am a big fan of Theroux's travel books and have now read them all. Some I liked better than others but I always came away from each with the feeling that I too had taken the trip. Funny thing is that I have never read one of his novels. I cannot really explain why because his eye as a novelist helps his travel writing. But it appears that if I want to read more Theroux I will have to pick up a novel or two as ZONA VERDE certainly appears to be his swan song to his solo travels. He is now 72 years old and his age and his questions of mortality flood the pages of this new book. He keeps asking himself, "What am I doing here."
ZONA VERDE is best considered a second volume to his wonderful earlier book DARK STAR SAFARI (5 stars) where he outlined his trip down the East Coast of Africa from Cairo to Cape Town (Theroux lived and taught school in his 20s in Africa). In this new book he returns to South Africa and then travels north up the West Coast through Namibia and Angola. As with all of his books and travels Theroux is a bit of a curmudgeon with a sharp eye for meeting interesting people, exploring hidden and overlooked history, and the challenges of everyday people. In other words the guy knows his stuff and his writing is sharp as a diamond glass cutter.
During his trip he experiences taking a guided tourist tour to see the townships. Apparently tourist are willing to pay money to go see slums. He meets a friend who runs a high end luxury safari where for $4000 a day you too can ride elephants. He stops to speak to students and finds the Chinese now make Angola home to their outcasts and convicts much the same way the Portuguese did when it was a colony. He recalls the Cubans fighting in Angola and the major slave port located there. Every story and incident is told with self-effacing honesty. His stories of his travels in Angola are heartbreaking with one person he meets saying, "This is what the world will look like when it ends." No doubt with only a tiny minority profiting by the sale of oil and diamonds.
This is a journey I recommend you take whether or not you have read DARK STAR SAFARI. It's truly personal!
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on June 2, 2017
Theroux was my go to man when I was younger and on the road around the globe like him so I can't disrespect him too much. But now that I'm older and have a good biblical worldview (and I'm preparing to go to Angola myself on an extended work trip), I see that there is much more in heaven and earth that is dreamt of in his philosophy. Some choice sentences, I highlighted, but mostly I skimmed entire chapters because they were, in his words, 'crapulous'. It's like watching Anthony Bourdain on a too full stomach. You had a great run, Paul. Take to the armchair, sir, I beg you.
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on May 10, 2015
I was disappointed by this book. I have read almost all of his travel writings. In all of them, Theroux completes the tour that he sets out to do. There are a lot of adventures and encounters with people of different cultures. Everything is seasoned with humor. This book almost completely lacks it. There is a whiny, self-pitying tone throughout, that grates on you after a while. Eventually he gives up the wretched tour after three countries. Maybe it is just as well! The thing that made his books entertaining, wears how he dealt with the hardships of travel: the miserable hotels, the overcrowded trains and buses, the unspeakable meals and toilets; where they were amusing challenges to overcome, they have in this book become intolerable hardships that are apparently rendering his tour pointless. With that, for me the author has become rather dull and uninteresting
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on July 9, 2015
Enlightening description of South western Africa, not at all what I expected. What a miserable way of life these folks live. Mr. Theroux is a bit nuts for taking the trip, even if it was to write the book. I'm not a fan of poverty travel and have no desire to go visit the places described. Makes me respect what others do to attempt to bring water and essential services to areas described in the book. Also good observations on the factors limiting NGO's and their ability to provide aid.
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VINE VOICEon July 5, 2013
I love Paul's non-fiction and eagerly awaited his return to the Africa about which he has so brilliantly written, and indeed there are flashes of the wit, humor and cranky yet keen observation that is uniquely his own.

But this is a thinly-stitched travelogue involving mostly paid lectures and visits with friends that Paul struggles to turn into the epic adventures of the past. Without giving away the ending, the ending makes perfect sense when you consider the level of effort and energy placed into this trip.

This is the first time he disappointed me; I hope it is the last.
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on July 27, 2014
Classic Theroux. The sequel to Dark Star Africa from 2005. This is his last book of foreign travel, politics and sociology after nearly 40 years of keeping us excited. As with readers who mature with travel and time, Theroux is critical where needed yet still maintaining his youthful optimism where deserved. One need not have been in Namibia to want to go, nor have been in Angola to never want to go back. My old colleagues who returned to Angola after independence from Portugal in the 1970's could never have guessed that oil would have so corrupted and divided their nation, and Theroux explains it for you. Read this book.
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on September 20, 2013
Want to know what was on Paul Theroux's mind in, probably, 2011 as he traveled in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana (briefly), and Angola? Well, this slightly crazed reader of THE LAST TRAIN TO ZONA VERDE categorized his underlines and then tabulated the results and his personal take on Theroux's top-five concerns is: the connections between politics and corruption in Africa, 16 underlines; cultural anthropology and tribal histories, 13 underlines; squalor and pervasive poverty, 11; the presence of death in Theroux's life, 7; and the history and lingering effects of colonialism and apartheid, 7.

Among these top-five concerns, cultural anthropology and tribal histories were the most interesting to me. While Theroux explored these interests as he traveled in South Africa and Angola, they rose to the top in Namibia, where he tells what he knows and sees about what the Afrikaners once called the Bushmen, Hottentot, kaffirs, and so on. This following fact about the so-called Bushman was new to me and quite moving. "I was ducking among the thornbushes with slender, golden-skinned people who were the earth's oldest folk, boasting a traceable lineage to the dark backward and abysm of time in the Upper Pleistocene, thirty-five thousand years or so ago, the proven ancestors of us all, the true aristocrats of the planet."

Theroux finds much to like in Namibia. This includes an effort to preserve native cultures, a freshly imagined and possibly effective structure for foreign aid, a flourishing environment for large animals, and a welcome tidiness at the core of its cities and towns. Likewise, he enjoys himself in Botswana, where he spends a few days at a lavish elephant safari camp, which provides a taste of what he calls travel-magazine Africa.

Similarly, Theroux finds some (although fewer) things to like in South Africa. He takes sardonic pleasure in the lux life that is still possible in Cape Town. And he sees that some of the shanty towns he visited ten years before (Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown) have progressed and now offer sturdier housing and sometimes even plumbing. Nonetheless, he is appalled by the squalor in which most black South Africans live and is repelled by several of its leading politicians, especially the venal and baleful Julius Malema.

In contrast, Theroux finds almost nothing to like in Angola. While he is pleased to stumble upon the existence of ancient tribal ceremony in the ravaged countryside, he calls the Angolan government "...corrupt, predatory, tyrannical, unjust, and utterly uninterested in its people--fearing them..." Further, "...Angola was too busy with its commercial extortions to be a police state. It was a government of greed and thievery, determined to exclude..."

I carp and say that Theroux would enrich his excellent travel books if they had indexes. Nonetheless, THE LAST TRAIN is an eye-opening and rewarding read. Paul gets the last word. "In the broken unspeakable cities of sub-Saharan Africa, the poor--the millions, the majority--ignored by their governments, live a scavenging existence in nearly identical conditions, in shacks, amid litter of Chinese-manufactured household junk... They all suffer from the same inadequacies--food shortages, no plumbing, no clinics, no food, no schools--and the same illnesses--cholera, malaria..."

Highly recommended.
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on February 14, 2015
I don't want this book to end. I actually haven't finished this book but I think this is really a much more insightful and well written book than Dark Star Safari. Paul Theroux is probably one of my favorite writers, most especially of travel books. The Last Train To Zona Verde seems to reflect a mature Paul Theroux who is more willing to accept other people's points of view and is a humbler version of himself. I have read every one of his books and this is one of his best. I have always enjoyed reading his historical insights on the countries he visits but I think that having lived in Africa and been there on at least his three visits, he has emerged with a clearer version of Africa than many others and been able to share his version with his readers better than many others. It does always surprise me a little that his fiction is always so different than his travel writing until I remember that in one of his books, he mentions that he writes his fiction based on some of his fantasies and dreams during his travels. Read this book and you will learn a lot more about Africa than you ever thought you knew. Plus, Mr. Theroux always keeps me on my toes with at least a couple of words I have never heard of so your vocabulary will improve as well!
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on July 24, 2013
There is an end to every trip. The traveler is safely home; and, back among the familiar creature comforts of his life, he can tell us where he has been, what he has seen and what if anything it has meant to him and what if anything he has learned from his journey. So it is with Paul Theroux in this book. He's commenced his trip up the East Coast of Africa from Cape Town. He's seen the Cape Town slums. He's travelled North the width of Namibia (half again the size of Texas), walked with the Bushmen seen, the bitter and the better in that part of Africa and, finally, in Angola (twice the size of Texas) he's had enough - the "broken, unspeakable cities" with chronic food shortages, no plumbing, no clinics, no schools, no security and no hope; and with his onward journey to Timbuktu blocked by armed gangs and with no security in Nigeria and Islamist rebels out of control in the Congo, he finally says "What am I doing here?" and he gives his soiled traveling clothes to a lonely lady in the market who tells him "these will fit my husband") and feels "beckoned home".

There was no train - ever. There was really no "Zona Verde" (the Bush) any more at the geographical point where he was when he felt the "beckoning home".

So after more than forty years of travel, more than forty years of telling us in some of the finest writing of any genre about what he has seen and where he has been, this book is his valedictory. And we shall miss him. Yes, he could be difficult, picky, opinionated, sulky at times, but he was an optimist - always was looking ahead, always ready for the next trip. He had an eye and an appreciation for beauty in the earth and goodness in its people. He could always see, sense, discern and tell us what lay beneath the surface; and he had no patience for cant, the false, the fake or the fatuous. He always traveled alone, unscheduled; he traveled with the ordinary travelers of whatever country he was in as his companions. No tours, no fancy stuff for him. And he was sentimental, a loving man. He loved trains. If one was available he would be on it. Above all he was (this is starting to read like an obituary!) - and is - a man of letters. In nearly every country he would take time out to conduct classes in English literature and composition; and, in reading all of his travel books, I was constantly amazed to learn that he always seemed to have with him some out-of-the-way book specifically relevant to where he was. He was a traveling reference room!

Not only is he a man of letters, I think his heart is in teaching. That's how he started out fifty years ago - as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in Malawi and Uganda - and I think an argument can be made that at least a part of his his heart has always been in Africa. When he made his trip ten years ago down the East Coast of Africa which was the basis for his Dark Star Safari he stopped again to teach at the school which had seen his first efforts; and he has frequently alluded to this happy period in his writings. So when his trip into Angola crashed and burned, when he saw and experienced nothing but chaos, poverty, trash, hunger and desuetude in the societal and governmental and economic train wreck that is now Angola I think a case can be made to he effect that he just said "enough". It was looking like an old friend who had fallen on hard times, drunk too much, lived it up (and now down) and had reached bottom. There was nothing there - for Mr. Theroux or any of his readers.

This really being a book review I should say something about the trip into Angola. It was a trip into "the Africa of cheap, despised, unaccommodated people of seemingly unfixable blight, so hideous, really, it is unrecognizable as Africa at all. But it is, of course - the new Africa. ... Angolans lived among garbage heaps - plastic bottles, soda cans, torn bags, broken chairs, dead dogs, rotting food, indefinable slop, their own scattered twists of excrement - and in one town a stack of dead cows, bloated from putrefaction" (p.297)

Angola has a problem - or problems - typical of a majority of African countries - poverty, disease, hunger, corruption, lack of infrastructure, lack of education and, above all the lack of a tradition of stable government. As an example, Angola was for Portugal the dumping ground of its underclass for four hundred years, never a country to be "developed" in the conventional sense but one to be pillaged; and I don't think anybody ever gave it a thought. Following a domestic revolution in Portugal in 1972 Angola achieved "independence" only to be thrust into a Civil War waged between three local and independent forces, two of which were supported by foreign powers. That, Civil War lasted more than 25 years. Nobody "won'. It left the country infested with land mines and disease. It broke apart whatever chances the natives had of maintain their traditional existence in the Bush and brought them into the cities which have expanded exponentially with grim poverty and grimmer futures for all. The game has gone from the Bush. There is no tourist industry. Nobody comes to Angola - and for good reason. There is nothing to see any more, nobody really interesting to talk to, no "natives" to gawk at. They are all in town in the slums trying to exist.

If you think this is a dystopian view of present day Angola you a right, but this is what Mr. Theroux walked into (and I mean this literally - he had to walk across the border.)
Only a master craftsman like Theroux could describe it accurately. But he has done it and done it well.

Bottom line. The book is a real downer of a travel tale because of the subject matter. The upside: Paul Theroux is, I think, the best, the most eloquent, the most insightful, most descriptive writer working today; and if for on other reason than to enjoy and envy his use of the written word, his last travel book is worth reading.
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