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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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism