Thu, Jul 04, 2013 - Page 11 News List

Book review: THE LAST TRAIN TO ZONA VERDE: Overland from Cape Town to Angola

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Angola, he writes, is hell on earth. After nearly 30 years of war, in which the Cubans battled the South Africans causing appalling human suffering, the country is now, Theroux thinks, living out a nightmare. Enormously rich in oil, gold and diamonds, it still displays atrocious poverty and deprivation alongside the flamboyant wealth of the few.

Luanda, the capital, is so horrific that Theroux goes into a flat spin. This is what the world will look like when it ends, he prophesizes, taking the hint from a highly literate local. And soon it becomes the archetype for all African cities — “slums of extreme danger and pure horror,” corrupt police, “no plumbing, no clinics, no schools, no security” and the people the victims of vulgarly affluent dictators. Here at last, in other words, is the chance for Theroux to compose his set-piece. Almost no foreigners have written about this country, he says, and compares those who have to doctors who specialize in afflictions of the anus.

Nor does it stop here. The whole world is going to be like this soon, he predicts, because most people now live in cities, and cities are everywhere horrific. What’s the point of traveling at all, he asks in his closing pages. And what, in particular, is the point of traveling further north up Africa’s benighted west coast, into Nigeria, equally oil-rich and equally awful, towards Mali’s Timbuktu, earlier on seen as a possible final destination?

And so it is that Theroux, feeling his age no doubt, but also feeling the dyspepsia characteristic of advancing years, throws in the towel. He never gets to “zona verde” (the Angolan bush). He returns quickly to Cape Town, and thence home to the US. One day, he thinks, he’ll research the ultra-poor of his own country.

It’s a bleak note for Theroux to conclude his 47th book on. The last pages are a crescendo of increasingly general abuse — savaging the colonial record of the Portuguese, offering no hope to endangered species, discovering his credit card had been copied and US$48,000 of debts run up and finally hearing that three of the men he’d befriended on the trip are now dead.

After recently being exposed to what felt like synchronized attempts by both the BBC and CNN to raise the African profile, it was sobering to find Theroux taking such a jaundiced view. Even so, and despite the best of media intentions, I know whose opinion, if I had to choose, I’d in the last analysis really trust.

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