Age slows us all, but a few rare types sail through the years somehow unimpeded. Paul Theroux, in his latest book, writes, “It occurs to me that someone else should be doing this, someone younger perhaps, hungrier, stronger, more desperate.” He tells us this before trekking the slums of Cape Town, South Africa, then traveling north by train and bus into the deserts of Namibia, detouring for an elephant safari in Botswana, and finally, after a horrific border crossing, traversing the exhausted landscape of postwar Angola.
Theroux made the journey three years ago, at just shy of 70 years of age. He teases us with the notion that this might be his “valedictory trip,” time to take stock on the continent where he was a Peace Corps worker in 1963, in Malawi, and where he began writing.
If this book is proof, age has not slowed Theroux or encouraged him to rest on his achievements: 29 works of fiction and this, his 17th book of travel. Theroux goes it alone, ignoring the easy routes, which would undermine the value of travel and writing about it.
Zona Verde — literally “green space,” from the Portuguese, reflecting Theroux’s love for the bush — is a sequel to 2002’s Dark Star Safari. He traveled Africa from Cairo to Cape Town “down the right side,” the continent’s eastern flank, by train and dugout canoe, on buses and “chicken” trucks. Now, from Cape Town, he continues “up the left hand side until … the end of the line … on the road or in my mind.” The destination: Timbuktu, in Mali.
He’s still gutsy, alert to Africa’s struggles, its injustices and history, and attracted because it “is still so empty, so apparently unfinished.”
In the tourist-heavy south he reflects on Namibia’s German colonizers and the “myth of the Bushman” of eastern Namibia and Botswana. The Ju’hoansi people have been immortalized and damaged by popular culture, like the film The Gods Must Be Crazy, and by academics and do-gooders. Once agile hunters, Theroux writes, they became “plagued by drunkenness and hunger.”
In this way, Zona Verde walks us through history and people, guided by Theroux’s disdain for colonialism, foreign aid and celebrity activists who have weakened Africa’s identity. Then he heads to northern Namibia and Angola, where life gets ugly and he is most at ease as a writer.
Near the border he finds “a world of roadblocks and mobs,” building to what may be one of the funniest, most nerve-bending border crossings in contemporary travel literature. Guards bark at travelers they shake down for money. Theroux, toting a duffel and briefcase and hounded by predatory teenagers, smiles and waves. Perfect strangers help him negotiate the border and leave him on the other side, Angola, with a drunken bush taxi driver.
Is Theroux afraid of death? Theroux confesses his fear, but insists, “I am not too old.” On the final page, the reader may feel relieved by the words “Not the end of travel, or of reckless essaying — there is no end to those for me.”
Peter Chilson reviewed this book for The San Francisco Chronicle.