The Last Train to Zona Verde by Paul Theroux: How not to write about Africa

A decade after his last African travelogue, Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux picks up where he left off. “What am I doing here?” begins to appear as a refrain. I began asking it, too: “What are you doing here, Paul? Why are you making me rehearse this done

The Last Train to Zona Verde: Overland from Cape Town to Angola
Paul Theroux
Hamish Hamilton, 368pp, £20

A decade after his last African travelogue, Dark Star Safari, which took him from Cairo to Cape Town, Paul Theroux picks up where he left off. He starts at the southern tip, intending to journey up “the left-hand side of Africa” until he finds “the end of the line, either on the road or in my mind”. He begins with a flash-forward to an experience with the !Kung people of north-east Namibia:

I then resumed kicking behind a file of small-bodied, mostly naked men and women who were quick-stepping under a sky fretted with golden fire through the dry scrub of what was once coarsely known in Afrikaans as Boesmanland (Bushmanland) – pouch-breasted women laughing among themselves, an infant with a head like a fuzzy fruit bobbing in one woman’s sling, men in leather clouts clutching spears and bows, nine of us altogether – and I was thinking, as I’d thought for years travelling the earth among humankind: the best of them are bare-assed.

This tour de force of pseudo-ethnography would have been the end of the line for this reader, had he not been a reviewer on deadline. If you stop here, though, you will not realise that Theroux retracts this scene a few pages later – we learn that it was a re-enactment staged for foreign tourists. He encounters this group again shortly after, when they have changed from animal skins back into second-hand clothes handed out by western charities: T-shirts lettered “TommyHilfiger” and “Springfield Hockey”. What visitors see is “a travesty in the precise meaning of the word . . . a dressing up in unnatural clothes”. The Ju/’hoansi misrepresent themselves “to cater to the imaginations of fantasists, of which I was one”, and the result is like taking a re-enactment at Plimoth Plantation for the reality of Massachusetts today.

The strange and troubling thing about this passage and about the book as a whole is that, even though they are contradicted at every turn, Theroux is unwilling to let go of his African fantasies. In any case, prose like that can’t easily be forgotten and he reprises the whole scene halfway through, having another anthropological go of things before heading to Angola. Here, “the twitching decrepitude of urban Africa” resumes and the book disintegrates in a welter of Afro-pessimism so intense that it out-Naipauls both Naipauls and makes even Conrad’s Marlow seem fairly chipper. “I became conscious of entering a zone of irrationality,” he writes: “the awful, poisoned, populous Africa; the Africa of cheated, despised, unaccommodated people; of seemingly unfixable blight.”

As in Dark Star Safari, Theroux has come to Africa because he wants to get away from emails, mobile phones, braying dinner-party guests, trivialities, and so on. Things start out fine: he acclimatises in luxury hotels in Cape Town, visits some townships, then gets a bus all the way to Namibia. Along the way, he registers various Southern African accents in italics – rather annoying but fair enough. “Good journey, sir” becomes “Jinny”; we hear of “dimisteek servants”, “thitty kilometres”, the “jaw-twisting Afrikaner yeauh for ‘here’ ”. All this, you sense, is just preparation. He wants to re-enter the zona verde, the green, brooding landscapes and immemorial rurality of “l’Afrique profonde”, where a narrator-hero descended from Herodotus, Haggard, Thesiger, Hemingway, Blixen, van der Post et al can commune with his subconscious and have big thoughts in an Africa uncomplicated by 21st-century African people.

As Theroux-watchers will know, his sub-Saharan travelogues read as if he had taken Binyavanga Wainaina’s sarcastic instructions on “How to Write About Africa” literally. He is, as the sharp-eyed blog Africa Is a Country remarks, “so reliable that way”. He mints generalisations and insults at such a clip that they soon begin to outstrip even the most gifted parodist. Africa “can be fierce”, we are told, but “in general . . . turns no one away”. Game animals have all but disappeared from war-torn Angola but human specimens substitute, “many of them, in their destitution, taking the place of wildlife”. He is told to avoid eye contact with hustlers at the border, which proves “strangely prescient” – “Animal behaviourists agree: stare at a chimp and he is likely to attack you.”

There is a problem: China has arrived, modernity is here to stay and Africa is now the fastest-urbanising continent in the world. There are “rappers and cellphoners” everywhere. Theroux is down on “rap”, which he hears blaring from Gugulethu to Luanda; he sniffs at the popularity of baseball caps in a continent where baseball is unknown. Fortunately, not all of American hip-hop culture has emigrated intact: “A skateboard,” we are told, “is unusable on an African road.”

As it turns its nose up at pop culture, telecommunications and the urban tout court, one can watch this travelogue painting itself into a very tight corner. In Angola, the bus breaks down in a tiny village where there is an “Efundula” initiation ceremony of young maidens in progress. There is an almost audible sigh of relief, as the book can indulge once more in ethnographic elaboration: “The cliché for them was nubile. And nubile was exactly what they were.”

But then it is back on the road, back to the squalor. All the while, as Theroux will learn, his credit card is being skimmed back in Namibia. The bank statement reads like a list of all the things the text would like to wish away, a return of the repressed in the form of Southern Africa’s tawdry brand names and franchises: $4,000 at OK Bazaars in Windhoek, almost as much at Edgars Furniture; booze at Shoprite; “lots of sunglasses from the Sunglass Hut, numerous computers, a used car, tinted windows, new alloy wheels, $800 worth of new shoes, and many supermarket bills”. It is a tremendous irony that while Theroux is deliberately offline on bad roads in Angola, pursuing “the dark star of my anxious dreams”, he is being fleeced by hi-tech identity fraud.

He knocks around Luanda for a while, trying but failing to get invited to speak to the Angolan Writers’ Union. They don’t see the point of it, he is told by a fixer: “They didn’t think there was anything you could tell them that they didn’t already know.” In turn, he judges the work of Angolan writers such as Pepetela, Arnaldo Santos and Sousa Jamba to be “like many African novels . . . sententious and lacking in humour”.

The attacks by Boko Haram in Nigeria and a coup in Mali put paid to the onward journey, which is just as well, because all West African cities are alike – “a perfect fright”. To write about them properly, one would need (and I did wonder how this made it past the editor) “the temperament of a proctologist”.

The rhetoric is so offensive and plain bizarre to anyone making her or his life in “Africa” that I had no option but to pretend that we were in a different genre, to keep imagining the book as a comic novel with a deliberately unlikeable narrator. I found myself often putting it down and googling clips from the documentaries made by Theroux’s more light-hearted son Louis as an antidote.

In the shift from Theroux Jr’s early, wacky documentaries about far-right separatists to the more textured accounts of private security in Johannesburg, we see the evolution of a subtle, supple documentary intelligence. He becomes less intrusive and controlling, more likeable; no longer content to rest on easy ironies and prepared to let others have the last word. Southern Africa has been good for Louis Theroux’s approach; but the opposite is true for his father’s prose style and here it reaches the end of the line – in the literary, if not the geographical sense.

Indeed, the man who (he quotes himself) once wrote, “Ever since childhood, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it” comes to an extraordinary decision: not this time. The last train to Malanje is Chinese-made, modern and well lit but no can do. Not here, not now.

Perhaps it is too easy to poke fun at this kind of a travelogue from an ironic, postcolonial perch, particularly when an author is getting on. As John Jeremiah Sullivan writes in his wonderful essay “Mister Lytle”, you must not argue with the ageing reactionary, but hold in mind a picture of the younger man at the height of his powers – in this case, the “fresh-air fiend” having lots of sex in Malawi or canoeing around the Pacific; not the senior citizen with a backpack being hustled at a bus stop in Lubango. “What am I doing here?” begins to appear as a refrain, à la Rimbaud and Bruce Chatwin. I began asking it, too (aloud): “What are you doing here, Paul? Why are you making me rehearse this done-to-death critique of stereotypical versions of Africa?”

Clearly, it styles itself as some kind of hard truth-telling, one that is not afraid to fly in the face of all bien-pensant, politically correct discourse about the continent – something that goes along with his long-term critique of aid agencies, meddling foreign do-gooders and what he calls “the virtue industry”. This produces some interesting moments early on, as Theroux keeps grilling a local Cape Town guide, Archie, about why a cultural centre in Gugulethu is surrounded by litter or when he finds it hard to stomach the model of reconciliation put forward by the parents of the murdered American exchange student Amy Biehl, who went on to employ their daughter’s killers. He baits his next tour guide, Phaks, until the latter admits that he could never accept the murder of his daughter in this way: “ ‘No, no. I can’t. Never, never.’ Nayvah, nayvah.”

Then the itinerary heads north towards the wide-open vistas of Bushmanland, a space that is a veritable Bermuda Triangle for travelogues: hundreds have disappeared there into the quicksands of romanticism, wishfulfilment and mysticism.

Working at an African university where everyone goes out of their way to avoid dropping ethnocentric and “essentialist” clangers, I find it rather fascinating to a see a writer letting it all hang out like this. Thousands of seminar hours are devoted to interrogating problematic representations of “indigenous knowledge systems” and the “First Peoples”; and then here comes Uncle Paul, like a bull in a china shop, knocking around Tsumkwe for a while before climbing back in the Land Rover and heading off to an elephant- back safari.

A prose that might once have been described as (at best) “mercurial” has crossed a line into being the disconnected notes that a grumpy old man writes up each evening in his hotel. Finally, Theroux claims that he is not an Afro-pessimist, just a pessimist. Yet there is a lost opportunity here, for what could have been a pointed examination of Angola’s misspent oil wealth becomes so subsumed in an almighty fug of peevishness and a lingering rancour over the credit fraud that it becomes very difficult to know what is what.

Bankrupt in more ways than one, then, this is a book I would recommend only as a teaching aid or to someone interested in tracking the final sub-Conradian wreckage of a genre, rusting away like the hulks of tanks that so fascinate the narrator along the roads in Angola. It is imbued not just with the narrator’s old age but the senescence of an entire genre.

He does manage to fit in one more train journey, though, as an epilogue. On his last day, now back in Cape Town, having meditated a little and taken his gout pills, he bundles up the clothes that he has worn during the trip and gives them away (unlaundered?). As a resident of the city centre in Cape Town, I can affirm that this is easily done just by putting them in a box and leaving them on a street corner – they disappear within the hour, fetched away by one of the many homeless people who live on the streets. Theroux, however, takes a train to Khayelitsha, some 40 kilometres away, stops a woman at random and hands them to her. She isn’t surprised, he tells us, and accepts them gratefully, saying, “These will fit my husband”: “With a kindly smile she advised me to be careful in the township, to keep my hand on my wallet, and to leave as quickly as possible.”

Hedley Twidle is a lecturer at the University of Cape Town and the winner of the 2012 Bodley Head and Financial Times Essay Prize

"In place of wildlife": Theroux focuses on an anthropological view of Southern Africa that he finds more compelling than the region's modern life. Photograph: Ilan Godfrey.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred