'The Last Train to Zona Verde': Paul Theroux, out of Africa

One of the important writers of our times trains his gimlet eye on Africa, one last time

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Given how it ends, this may be the last African travel book by a writer whose African and other travels have brought considerable joy and enlightenment to admiring readers for many years.

Mr. Theroux decides that, alone, traveling by public transport inside Africa by bus, train and bush taxi, he will try to go from Cape Town, near the southern tip of South Africa, through Namibia (former German Southwest Africa), Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria and northward to Timbuktu, in Mali.


By Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($27).

It isn't his first travel in Africa. He lived and taught, for example, in Malawi in East Africa. He has found over the years that he can handle it, the smells, the food, the dirt, the jostling and other discomfort, and that he can take great pleasure from the good parts, especially those of the "zona verde," what in formerly Portuguese Africa "the bush" is called.

He works his way northward through Cape Town, the Northern Cape and Namibia, much of which is familiar to me, and charming for me to read about from my own travels in that area, like reading what someone might write about a walk through Downtown Pittsburgh. I know some things about the area that he missed, such as, for example, the peculiarities of the Germans in Southwest Africa, pygmy paintings in isolated caves in the Northern Cape, and the American role in Angola's civil wars.

The main defect in his view, according to me, was what I would call, in French, a certain nostalgie de la boue with which he is afflicted, a tendency to romanticize some of the uglier aspects of life in Southern Africa, including the lives and alleged nobility of the poor.

Unfortunately to some degree, that flaw and other problems caught up with him in Angola, one of the most appallingly ruled countries of what he calls "the new Africa," where a golden elite takes the country's wealth, lives like kings, and abandons the rest of the population to horrible poverty.

Angola gets to Mr. Theroux, he throws in the towel, and goes home. He claims it isn't his age -- 70 -- but it is also true from my experience that what one can or will do as a young person becomes unacceptable with greater age, girth and wealth. Warm beer becomes harder to drink. This book, interesting to read, is probably Mr. Theroux's farewell to Africa.

In sum, taking all of his work as an opus, he deserves to be considered an important writer of our times. "Zona Verde" does contain some sharp observations on Africa.

Mr. Theroux asks the hard questions on the effect of U.S. and other foreign aid on African countries that form the substance of continuing debate. They are found alongside sometimes tiresome grouchiness and superficiality about what are simply the realities of modern Africa.


Dan Simpson, a retired U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (dsimpson@post-gazette.com).


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