Saturday, July 20, 2013

Review of "The Last Train to Zona Verde" by Paul Theroux

Africa has shaped much of Paul Theroux's life, writing career and world view.  Railroads have also always been held a fascination for Theroux.  So, it is fitting, then, that as he nears the end of the track that is his life and his life's work, he should return to his beloved Africa and travel by train and foot and other assorted means of transportation.  In this book, he chronicles his journey from Capetown, South Africa  to the seldom visited outpost of Angola.

The book is full of descriptions that are vivid and unforgettable.  It is also filled with Theroux's reflections on how he has observed changed in Africa. During his sojourn through Namibia, he makes an acerbic observation about the pervasiveness of rap music on the continent of Africa today: "Rap is the howl of the underclass, the music of menace, of hostility, of aggression.  Intentionally offensive, much of the language is so obscene that it is unplayable on radio stations. . . . [The idle and unemployed youth of Africa]Now they had the music to match it [their alienation].  They had the words, too, and could say with Caliban in 'The Tempest, 'You taught me language, and my profit on't/Is I know how to curse.'" (Page 121)

In a chapter entitled "Among the Real People," the author distills the quintessence of his message.  He is visiting the storied Bushmen of the Kalahari desert.  Often idealized as "the noble savage," as in the film "The Gods Must Be Crazy," the reality of their existence is more bleak.  For the benefit of tourists who are willing to pay to see the illusion, "Bush Walks" are organized to show the simple and primitive life style, in much the way that actors portray Colonial life in Williamsburg,Virginia or Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts.  Yet Theroux lingers long enough to see the real underbelly of life in the bush with its disease,  starvation and despair.

The overall impression that Theroux leaveshis readers with is one of discouragement that this continent he has come to love is in deep trouble and in need of massive reform.  The corruption that he documents from the highest to the lowest levels of communal life is a fatal flaw that, unless reversed, threatens to hold Africa in its clutches for the foreseeable future.

This is not just a travelogue; it is a testament and a philosophical treatise worthy to be read and heeded.


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