Monday, May 13, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
 “THE LAST TRAIN TO ZONA VERDE” by Paul Theroux (Hamish Hamilton / Penguin, $NZ37)

            What is the opposite of “mellowed”? “Acerbicised” perhaps? I wish there were such a word in the English language, as it would describe precisely the author of The Last Train to Zona Verde. He is more embittered and disillusioned than ever, and probably with very good reason. Paul Theroux is now 72 years old and quite different from the 30-ish chap who wrote The Great Railway Bazaar and established himself as an important travel writer all those years ago. As several indications in the text suggest, the journey he recounts in The Last Train to Zona Verde may well be his last. He even winds up saying he is no longer particularly enamoured of train journeys, which have often been his trademark.

            Let’s get our geographical bearings. A bit over a decade ago, Theroux took a long journey down the east side of Africa, beginning in Cairo and ending in Cape Town. It became his 2002 travel book Dark Star Safari. In 2011, aged 70, he set out on an overland journey, where he meant to travel up the west side of Africa, starting in Cape Town and, he hoped, going on to Timbuktu. But he never completed the journey. Instead, having begun in South Africa and made it through Namibia (formerly “South-West Africa”) with a side-trip to Botswana, he decided to abandon his trip in Angola, which he found to be Hell on Earth. So the book is subtitled “Overland from Cape Town to Angola” and it ends with a 20-page reflection called “What Am I Doing Here?” in which he questions the whole rationale for travel books and heavily suggests that he will retire back to America for good. Indeed in some countries the book is being released with the more emphatic subtitle “My Ultimate African Safari”.

For the record, “zona verde” is simply Portuguese for “the green belt” and is used by Angolans to mean something like “the bush”, after whose simplicities Theroux hankers. But he is fully aware that such hankerings are mainly romantic delusions.

This notion is expressed in the very opening pages of The Last Train to Zona Verde.  Theroux pictures himself walking with the Ju/’hoansi (“Bushmen”) people of the Kalahari as they hunt, and contrasting their simple subsistence way of life with the fact that at that very moment, in Europe and America, banks are crashing, capitalism is crumbling and money is being rendered worthless. So we appear to be building up to a dithyramb on the superiority of the primitive, earthy life. At which point Theroux whips the rug from under us by reminding us that his momentary reverie was pure delusion, for virtually no Ju/’hoansi now live the way he describes them, and those who do are unhappy employees of the tourism industry who are made to act out a “traditional” way of life for foreigners’ cameras. Most “Bushmen” want to join the modern economy and end up living in urban slums.

The book thenceforth sets itself against tourism-inspired romanticism.

Theroux visits post-apartheid South Africa’s squatter camps. He applauds the real self-help he sees there, and the inhabitants’ initiatives for education. But, in spite of the optimism, he is aware that physically, the old apartheid-era townships were better maintained. The new squatter settlements are more squalid than the old workers’ quarters were. In one slum called Lwandle:

Former migrant labour hostels had been converted into dwellings for families, but they were just as crowded, dirty and unheated. Small children, ragged and barefoot, chased each other on a chilly evening, running past a wall with a painting of Steve Biko, killed by police during the apartheid era, one of the martyrs of the freedom struggle. Not far from where we were talking, a woman was doing her laundry, slapping at wet clothes in a small public sink fixed to a standpipe by the dirt road…. The museum at Lwandle had been more successful than the cultural committee at Lwandle might have intended, since the whole of the township seemed to have been preserved as a grubby reminder of the bad old days persisting into the present. The only difference was that instead of Lwandle serving as a camp for overworked men, it was now a camp of unemployed families, scraping by on handouts and menial labour.” (pp.48-49)

In many ways, the new South Africa is a frightening place (32,000 homicides and 70,000 rapes annually), but Theroux is not engaged in any cheap post-colonial drooling. Instead, he is affronted that the South African government, like the governments of most of Africa, is so self-serving, corrupt, faction-ridden and largely unconcerned for the majority of its citizens. He writes:

Many of the South Africans I’d met wanted to be reassured. ‘How are we doing?’ they’d asked, but obliquely. How did South Africa compare to the country I’d seen on my trip ten years before and written about in Dark Star Safari? I could honestly say that it was brighter and better, more confident and prosperous, though none of it was due to any political initiative. The South African people had made the difference, and would continue to do so, no thanks to a government that embarrassed and insulted them with lavish personal spending, selfishness, corruption, outrageous pronouncements, hollow promises and blatant lies.” (Pg.66)

The opening sections of this book are saturated with a sense of guilt as Theroux (a.) realizes that he is just another slum tourist, like so many others who come to gawk; and (b.) understands more acutely how privileged and cossetted his own life is between his bouts of roughing it. Occasionally he refers to himself and to other travellers as “romantic voyeurs”. He also knows how easy it is to succumb to the tourists’ version of Africa. He enjoys the safe and friendly hotel in urban South Africa before he begins to see the slums and the hinterland. He realizes that much of the apparent modernity and cleanliness is a mere façade built over massive human misery.

This sense is stronger when he comes to travel through Namibia, which was, long ago, a German colony. The town of Windhoek, dominated by Europeans, seems so clean and orderly and civilised in a colonial way – a place where you can buy hygienically prepared food and walk the streets safely. But again it is mere façade, for outside the old town are the larger townships where the great majority of (African) Namibians live, and the townships are as squalid as possible. And what is true of Namibia is doubly true of Angola, where there is not only routine poverty and squalor but also a huge culture of bribery and violence among police and government officials. Far from having a few respectable towns as façades, Angola has only the isolated and security-guarded mansions of the very rich who rake in the wealth that no Angolan government would think of sharing with the general population. As for Angola’s capital Luanda, it is a mountain of filth, which doesn’t have even the superficial charm of Windhoek.

None of this is meant to incite nostalgia for an old imperialist Africa. Theroux is unsparing in his accounts of the old German regime in Namibia, which practised genocide; and the old Portuguese regime in Angola, which enslaved Africans and kept them illiterate.  Even so, over bumpy, pot-holed roads with unreliable drivers, it’s a chastening and unhappy journey, but doubtless a truthful one.

There are many consistent themes in this book. One is Theroux’s detestation of the tourist version of Africa, meaning wealthy Westerners going on “safari” far from the everyday realities that most Africans endure. For such tourists, the wildlife is more important than the human beings. When, in Namibia, he crosses the “Vet Fence” that protects farms from roving beasts, he finds neglected and impoverished tribes. “The Ju/’hoansi lost their land in the cause of nature conservation, and expanding game reserves where elephants… were killed by wealthy foreigners” says Theroux, endorsing ethnologist Robert Gordon’s comment that “tourism robs the people of their dignity, exploits and suppresses them, and leaves them manipulated and unprepared for new ways of life.” (p.156). “Death by tourism” is a term Theroux sometimes uses. Clearly, then, he is very “conflicted” in the chapter where he is guest at a millionaires-only tourist camp where the wealthy ride elephants and kid themselves that they have seen raw nature. He likes the food and hospitality he is shown, but then hates himself for being part of a wider exploitation.

Another major theme is Theroux’s intense suspicion of foreign aid schemes, a suspicion he has already expressed in some of his earlier books. He notes:

Anyone who has spent even a short time in a Third World country has seen this waste of money and the futility of a great deal of foreign aid. Africa is the happy hunting ground of donors, also of people seeking funds. The classic African failed state is composed of a busy capital city where politicians on large salaries hold court and drive big cars; dense and hopeless slums surrounding the capital; and the great empty hinterland, ignored by the government and more or less managed by foreign charities, which in many instances are big businesses run by highly paid executives.” (p.192)

This theme reaches a crescendo in the chapters on Angola, where Theroux notes that billions of dollars of annual revenue (from minerals) are routinely stolen by a typically kleptocratic government, while the populace at large starves. Foreign aid simply allows dictators and titled thieves to share nothing and still expect handouts. Theoretically, Angola should be one of the wealthiest nations on the continent. In reality, its people are among the most degraded. As for new sources of foreign “aid”, they are as destructive as the old. Theroux opines (p.265) that increased Chinese involvement in Africa is strictly on Chinese terms – in other words the Chinese are the new wave of exploiters.

And along with the pitfalls of tourism and foreign aid, Theroux hits hard at those inane Western “celebrities” (usually movie stars or rock stars) who say widely-publicised and inaccurate things about Africa, usually in the cause of promoting themselves as humanitarians. While in South Africa, he notes the sinister influence of the youngish ANC defector Julius Malema, who greatly admires Robert Mugabe and wishes to follow Zimbabwe’s disastrous policy of seizing all white-owned farms (and thus reducing the country to chronic famine). Malema is regarded with horror by most South Africans (black and white) as he incites rallies of young people to sing songs about killing all white farmers. At which point Theroux notes:
But wait: one voice was raised in defence of Julius Malema, fat and sassy in his canary-yellow T-shirt, his fist raised shouting ‘Shoot the Boer – shoot, shoot.’ This supporting voice was the confident brogue of the Irish singer Paul Hewson, known to the world as the ubiquitous meddler Bono, the frontman of U2. He loved the song. The multimillionaire rocker, on his band’s ‘360-Degree Tour’ in South Africa in 2011, had squinted through his expensive sunglasses, tipped his cowboy hat in respect, and asserted that ‘Shoot the Boer’ had fondly put him in mind of the protest songs sung by the Irish Republican Army….” (p.65)

The singing dimwit who couldn’t see that he was supporting mass murder is, in Theroux’s version, at one with the likes of Madonna ostentatiously adopting African children.

Yet, while despising the tourists and publicity hounds, Theroux also spends much time kicking away the ladder upon which he himself is standing. The Last Train to Zona Verde is replete with stories on the shortcomings of travel-writers, and how easy it is to fake a travel book without much real knowledge of the lands being described. Theroux refers to the forgotten novelist Frederic Prokosch’s faked 1935 novel of Asia The Asiatics, which was written entirely in America when the author knew Asia only from other peoples’ travel books. Theroux comments:

The Asiatics was much admired by the traveller Bruce Chatwin, who habitually fictionalised his travel writings, punching up mild episodes and giving them drama, turning a few days in a place into a long and knowledgeable residence.” (p.73)

Of Laurens van der Post, Theroux says his first book “made a crepuscular and existential narrative out of a fairly conventional few months of bushwhacking with a team of hearties… I realized from that book and a few others that he was something of a mythomaniac.” He goes on to describe van der Post as a “posturing fantasist and fake mystic in the field.” (pp.137-138)

Other travel writers are similarly rebuked although, in fairness, Theroux is equally ready to praise those books that are genuinely informative about a country. Generally they are books written by real ethnologists, geographers and political commentators – and therefore less likely to become bestsellers like the popular and meretricious fantasies of a Chatwin.

Finally, as he rationalises his own decision not to finish his planned journey, Theroux tells us:

 It takes a certain specialist’s dedication to travel in squalid cities and fetid slums, among the utterly dependent poor, who have lost nearly all their traditions and most of their habitat. You need first of all the skill and the temperament of a proctologist. Such a person, deft in rectal exams, is as essential to medicine as any other specialist, yet it is only the resolute few who opt to examine the condition of the human body by staring solemnly…. up its fundament and trawling through its intestines, making the grand colonic tour. Some travel has its parallels, and some travellers might fit the description as rectal specialists of topography, joylessly wandering the guts and entrails of the earth and reporting on their decrepitude. I am not one of them.” (pp.341-342)

In short, says Theroux in this overlong image, he doesn’t want to be a tourist but he is tired of looking up the arsehole of humanity.

Yes, this could well be his last travel book.

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