Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Literary Bite: The Last Train to Zona Verde by Paul Theroux

Consider this post a long-overdue thank you note to the Newbie! She got me The Last Train to Zona Verde by Paul Theroux as a getting-into-grad-school present almost a year ago now...but she lives in CA, so we didn't actually see each other (so I did not have the book in my hands) until this past Christmas...and then because I'm in grad school it took me two months to read it!

Looking back at my reading list, this is the fifth Paul Theroux book I've read over the past four and a half years. So that's kind of a lot? What can I say, I like his travel writing.

The Last Train to Zona Verde is the story of Theroux's final trip to Africa. As a follow up to his Dark Star Safari, in which he traveled overland from Cairo to Cape Town, it chronicles his trip from Cape Town up the west coast of Africa toward Timbuktu.

My reading history shows that I like Theroux. And I like Africa (well duh). But unfortunately, this book is not his best...I feel like he was kind of lost on the trip, and somehow lost me as a reader. (Full disclosure: I read this in 2-5 page increments right before going to bed over the course of a couple months, so the lost-ness could have been entirely my own fault...)

But he seemed like a traveler without a purpose. Perhaps finally after a lifetime of traveling, he reached the tipping the point in his own curmudgeonly misanthropy. Part of this could have to do with the countries he visited and the context in which he was seeing them. He says himself that Africa is "the kingdom of light" where he spent the "happiest years of his life." And in this book he returns, decades later, to see the same old problems or even worse new ones -- not exactly inspiring optimism.

But the African optimist and explorer in me rebelled against his brutally truthful portrait -- the bush of Namibia and Angola apparently (and not surprisingly) do not have a whole lot going on. I get that. I would probably be cranky traveling alone there too. But as readers may recall from this summer, when I have a ridiculous or terrible travel experience, I recount it in the most amusing way possible. Theroux, on the other hand, wrote like (and maybe is) a world-weary grumpy old man. He just ddn't bring the same traveler's attitude of excitement and exploration to this book as he did to his others.

But Last Train did get me thinking about the day-to-day life in places where I spend so much (too much?) academic energy focusing on the big picture. And despite Theroux's pessimism, I want to go to all the places and see them myself!