John McDonough, the narrator here, sounds like a man standing on a bridge, killing the last couple of hours before he jumps to his death. His deadpan delivery of Paul Theroux’s Last Train to Zona Verde seems a little morose. But then, there is little enough here to be happy about in this tale of overpopulation and massive poverty in Africa. Like most places on earth, people in Africa would be a bit better off if they had been left alone by Europeans. But just as Native Americans can’t go back to roaming the plains hunting buffalo, Africans can’t return to their aboriginal lifestyles either.
Paul goes to every slum he can find and goes into some detail about the vast variety of houses the locals have constructed from trash of one sort or another. He tells tales of how the German’s wanted to use the Finial Solution on this tribe or that in 1915 or so. There are no happy stories out of Africa. The only good things he has to say about anything always end up being that Five Star Hotel he stayed at in Cape Town or that very clean retirement community run by Germans. The only jobs he ever mentions Africans having are domestic ones and the occasional tour guide who shows him the site of some massacre or explains how much nicer these slums are then those slums over there.
Africa seems to be lovely, if you happen to be a wealthy writer or a great white hunter or German snowbird. The people who have to live there, well, not so much. Paul seems to be able to tell one tribe from another, and there are a gazillion tribes, whereas I tend to think of them all as ‘African.’ He talked about how The Gods Must Be Crazy perpetuated the myth that there are still people who live by hunting and gathering, and that there are still people who would want to live that way.
Paul says that he hates zoos for the way they treat animals and then goes on to say that all of Africa is now basically a zoo. His one semi happy story is about an Elephant Safari company, but even that tale ends in death and disillusionment. I have mixed feelings about zoos myself. I feel sorry for the animals, but this is the only way I have been able to see so many exotic creatures. I’m not a gazillionaire like Paul Theroux who can wander the world and see what remains of the wild for myself.
Last Train to Zona Verde is an anti-travel book. He goes out of his way to find every horrid thing he can-and it is never made clear why he does this. Most people steer clear of the places Paul seeks out. That he then reports of having a depressing trip can hardly be blamed on Africa. If you travel the world and only stop to look at landfills, the world is a pretty grim place.
Maybe it had something to do with Paul Theroux being a voracious reader. A good deal of Last Train to Zona Verde is taken up with Paul quoting from obscure books and authors that I have to believe the bulk of his readers are not familiar with. He is a literary snob of the highest order and criticizes many of the books, even as he constantly references them. He seems to believe that he missed seeing the real Africa by only a few decades. All that he sees is colored by all that is now gone.
Paul is a good writer who likes big words and long sentences and long dead writers. Last Train to Zona Verde was just a little too much of a downer for my taste.