IN HIS travel books, more obviously so than in his fiction, Paul Theroux likes to work hard for the reader.
The Last Train To Zona Verde: Overland From Cape Town To Angola
Hamish Hamilton, £20
He has made a long career of travel as slog, writing (unlike, say, Bruce Chatwin or VS Naipaul) not only about the revelations but the tedium and frustrations of voyaging.
The word “travel”, as Theroux surely knows, can be traced back to “travail”, or work, and it’s in this arduous spirit, as much as with a lust for adventure, that Theroux has set off on many journeys. He takes the long way round – often using local buses or trains and “tramping out a book” with his feet.
There’s an innate naturalness to his travel books; a devil-may-care outspokenness and unpretentiousness; a willingness to talk to people met by chance and to wander without a plan; a knack for sketching in little digressions on history, people, literature.
Theroux is still at it, though now over 70, “way past retirement age”, as he reminds us in The Last Train To Zona Verde, a melancholic, farewell journey even from the outset, which threatens to be his final travel book of this type.
More than 10 years ago, Theroux travelled from Cairo to Cape Town for Dark Star Safari. Now he picks up where he left off, intending to go from Cape Town overland up the west coast of Africa.
Where Dark Star Safari was a whistlestop tour, from the north to the south of Africa, Zona Verde is smaller in focus, homing in on three countries: South Africa, Namibia and Angola. The shrunken scale of Theroux’s travelling here, it turns out, is by accident rather than design, yet it results in a more intense level of detail also ascribed by Theroux to age: “There was a finality in my way of looking now, a gaze with more remembering in it,” he writes.
Zona Verde rambles rather aimlessly initially. Staying in a luxury hotel, Theroux revisits townships in Cape Town he wrote about before, wanting to see how things have changed – mostly for the better, he discovers, although new slums have sprung up elsewhere. The prose sometimes droops (“Namibia is a land of extremes”) or over-generalises (“In Africa every city is the same”) but in the bush in Angola, his narrative finally finds its feet, “in the old Africa of mud huts, twig fences, bony cows, strutting roosters, and no lights… of the barefoot and the hard-up”. Angola, oil and diamond-rich yet desperately poor for most, takes over the book.
Theroux is doubt-ridden throughout this self-consciously valedictory journey, questioning his own voyeurism, superficiality and whimsicality, and finally abandons plans to travel on to Timbuktu, in an odd, truncated end. More self-aware than usual, he also seems more despondent about his own project, about urban Africa, and about travel writing generally.
But in some reflective passages, Theroux defends the genre, and thus his life’s work. “I have always felt that the value of a travel narrative, especially one that detours down back roads, is that it becomes a record of details of how people lived at a particular time and place.”
Theroux still does all this inimitably, and more, getting better the more detours he takes. It’s a shame to see him laying down his notebooks here, unwilling to go on. «