Review of Paul Theroux’s supposedly last book on Africa

Graeme Wood in The American Scholar:

ImagesPaul Theroux’s globe, if it had a pin stuck in it for every visited city and town, would bristle like a frightened porcupine. The west coast of Africa has remained one of its last barren patches, and for good reason: hostile governments, tropical disease, ravaged environments, and predators, both human and non. In 2003’sDark Star Safari, he traveled bumptiously down the east coast of the continent, which, compared with Africa’s left coast—to say nothing of its interior—is virtually Scandinavian in its safety and ease of movement.

The Last Train to Zona Verde advertises itself as Theroux’s “final African adventure,” and few who read it will doubt his promise never to return. In his previous Africa book, he wrote convincingly of the destructive effects of foreign aid and how it robs Africans of the ingenuity and initiative they displayed when he taught in Malawi (then Nyasaland) as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s. On this return journey, he begins where he left off, in Cape Town, deeply perturbed and skeptical about the future of the continent. He heads for points north and west, first to Namibia and Botswana, then to Angola. I spoil little by saying that Theroux’s original plan to proceed to Timbuktu is thwarted, and the total mileage covered in this book is the least of any of his travelogues.

Theroux’s great realization—starting with The Great Railway Bazaar in 1975—was that travel writing didn’t require, or even reward, the sort of quasi-omniscient narration that one finds in guidebooks, or the inhumanly sunny disposition of magazine writing. Instead, the pleasures of the genre could be character-driven (“I sought trains; I found passengers”) and leave in the bits about hassles and inconvenience that make up the bulk of the experience of getting from place to place. No depiction of Kabul would be frank if it included Babur’s gardens but omitted the city’s daily horrors and bloodshed.

More here.