Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Last Train to Zona Verde by Paul Theroux

Getting old means, more than anything else, that things are ending. Everyone knows this: that there's a last time for everything, and each last time marks another step toward death. Even something as small as realizing that forty is too old to go on a Tilt-A-Whirl any more is one small step, one indication that a once-assumed capacity and ability is now gone forever.

Paul Theroux has been a professional traveler for forty years, since his first unhappy journey across Eurasia was encapsulated in The Great Railway Bazaar. Some of the countries he's visited are now closed to outsiders, or too dangerous to visit -- each of those is an ending. But with The Last Train to Zona Verde, Theroux comes up against a larger ending, realizing that there are countries and types of travel and situations that he's just not up to anymore at the age of seventy.

Last Train declares itself Theroux's "Ultimate African Safari," and it's his farewell journey in Africa if not his last travel book entirely. Theroux was always happiest -- well, as happy as he ever allows himself to be seen as, which is not very much -- at the edges of things, out in wilderness of one sort or another, on a bad train or jolting bus or faraway from modern cities. Last Train doesn't give up on those things, but it could signify that getting to those places -- getting through the horribly overcrowded and corrupt Third World cities that are the gatekeepers of wilderness -- is just too much for him now, physically and emotionally. Those cities have gotten larger and more hellish in Theroux's lifetime, and Last Train culminates in Luanda, the capital of Angola, a city broken in more ways than even Theroux can deal with.

Before that, though, the journey begins in high spirits and hope, as Theroux plans a trip up the East African coast from Cape Town to match the similar journey down the west coast a decade before in Dark Star Safari. As usual, his plans are fluid and contingent -- he knows where he'd like to go, but doesn't plan exactly how he'll get there, or all of the stops along the way. So he planned to travel by land through South Africa and Namibia and Angola, and had vaguer ideas of how to deal with the war-torn countries north of them, and no clearly defined end-point -- this would be a safari that lasted as long as it could, and went as far as it could go. And Theroux finds joy along the way, in Cape Town and out in the bush on his way north.

Zona Verde, like all of Theroux's travel books (and nearly everyone else's travel books, too), is made up of episodes -- what he sees and does in a particular place before he moves on to the next stop. And each of those episodes is exquisite here, with a poignancy and clarity driven by Theroux's knowledge that this would probably be his last trip through Africa, a land he's loved since he was a young man. Theroux is still unparalleled when it comes to deploring dirt and corruption and thoughtlessness, but he's equally good in celebrating the simple joys of human existence -- as he writes, early on in Zona Verde, "the best of them [humanity] are bare-assed."

If we're lucky, Zona Verde will turn out to be Theroux's last African trip, but not his last travel book -- he's not young, but he's still writing as well as he ever did, and it would be a shame to have his eye turned away from the outside world, never again to stare intently at the things only he can celebrate or disdain this well.

Footnote: I've previously covered the Theroux travel books Ghost Train to the Evening Star and The Pillars of Hercules here.

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