Paul Theroux has produced some of the best travel books of the past 50 years, and some of the lamest. His latest work shrieks swansong, from its title — The Last Train — to the acknowledgement that he has reached ‘the end of this sort of travel, marinated in politics and urban wreckage’, to the closing words with which he ‘felt beckoned home’. So, if this is the last of Theroux as epic traveller, has he gone out with a bang, or another whimper?
In his 2002 book, Dark Star Safari (not his best), Theroux travelled along the eastern side of the African continent from Cairo to Cape Town. This time he decided to even things out by travelling in the west, from South Africa to Namibia and Angola. The plan is sketchy to say the least; late on in the book, he does mention the idea of getting up into Mali and ending in Timbuktu, but by then it is clear that he will not. It all sounds very random, but Theroux the writer can get away with that sort of thing. The question is whether Theroux the traveller can keep up.
At 72 years of age, he is now older than most people in the continent to which he has returned throughout his life. As a young man, he spent several years in Uganda, worked for the Peace Corps. That was where he married his wife and where his first child was born. It was perhaps also where he found his voice as a writer. ‘Africa gave me everything,’ he admits here. He has returned to the continent regularly over the decades and written about it in several books. This latest one has some of the same faults as Dark Star Safari, including the sweeping overstatements (Cape Town is not the only city in Africa to aspire to grandeur) and generalisations about Africa and Africans: imagine how annoying it would be to read a book set in England where the natives are constantly referred to as Europeans. And yet it is hard to put down The Last Train to Zona Verde, for no other reason than for its core of brutal honesty, about the author himself as much as about the places he visits.
In Theroux’s first — and still his best — travel book, the genre-defining Great Railway Bazaar, and in his subsequent train narratives, he proved himself a sharp observer of human foibles and a master of pithy description. He was the sort of person who was entertainingly bitchy to read, but would have been a nightmare to have encountered on one of his journeys. Age has mellowed him and he is more forgiving of the weaknesses of the people he meets. The bitchiness has been replaced by a strong sense of empathy for individuals trapped in failed systems, and an outspoken condemnation of their corruption, and the evil they do, describing the colonising Portuguese as ‘hopeless, shiftless, horny Europeans’. He criticises international aid for the dependency it fosters, especially in a resource-rich country such as Angola, where the government is unwilling to share wealth with its people.
Last Train is a book of three parts. There is the journey from South Africa through Namibia, with its joys (landscape, the odd glimpse of a surviving native culture, improvements in places such as some of South Africa’s townships) and its horrors (most of the urban environments). There is the final stage of the journey, through Angola, a country so beaten up by war and bad politicians that ‘its soul had been stolen’. Its curse seems catching as Theroux writes of ‘a sense of hopelessness,’ a feeling that had hung over him since entering the country and that overwhelms him when the American-educated Angolan film-maker who is about to take him upcountry suddenly dies of a heart attack.
This material would have been enough to make a good read, although one with a strange ending. The third element, in which Theroux reaches the end of his line, makes it more memorable. How is the following for anger?
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 a litter of Chinese-manufactured household junk.
Another (younger?) traveller might have gone on to look for redeeming features, rays of hope, the warmth of friendship. Theroux knows he will not get beyond ‘an anatomy of melancholy’. The decision to go home has something of the whimper about it, but the book he has crafted out of his experiences packs plenty of bang.