The Last Train to Zona Verde

lasttrainThe Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari
Paul Theroux
Print Length: 373 pages
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (May 7, 2013)
Kindle Edition $9.45, Hardcover $18.69

I have read almost all of Paul Theroux’s travel books, and some of his fiction as well. I read The Great Railway Bazaar when it was first published in 1975. Most of his other travel books I also read when they first came out. If I somehow missed a book I corrected the error when I learned of it. One of the few I didn’t read was Dark Star Safari, because its subject was Africa, and that part of the world holds less of an interest for me than does the rest of the world. As I recall, the reviews at the time accused Theroux of being a curmudgeon, a characterization he disputed.

When I saw the reviews of Last Train, I downloaded the Kindle sample and added it my queue. Yes, the book is about Africa, but the word “ultimate” in the subtitle doesn’t mean “best” or “greatest,” but rather last. That meant I had to read the book. However, I failed to note that the subtitle reads “My Ultimate African Safari,” and not “My Ultimate Safari,” or “My Ultimate Sojourn.” More on that shortly.

Theroux does his usual masterful job of vividly describing the people and places he encounters. As one would expect in Africa, there is plenty of poverty and a lack of infrastructure and Western amenities. But Theroux was happy to be there, and I saw no trace of curmudgeon-like behavior. Africa, after all, is close to his heart. He was in the Peace Corps in Malawi in the 1960’s and later taught at a university in Uganda. It’s easy to understand his desire to make that last trip.

I wouldn’t quote the closing paragraph of a novel, but it seems appropriate here to quote how Theroux ends the book. I think that he sums it all up nicely, and he seems to have gotten Africa out of his system. So if you have thoughts of reading The Last Train to Zona Verde you may want to stop reading here. Theroux brings his journeys in Africa to a close by writing:

Not the end of travel, or of reckless essaying— there is no end to those for me— but the end of this trip and this sort of travel, marinated in politics and urban wreckage, where the only possible narrative I see (and am unwilling to write) is an anatomy of melancholy. There is a world elsewhere.

What am I doing here? I knew at last. I am preparing to leave. On the red clay roads of the African bush among poor and overlooked people, I often thought of the poor in America, living in just the same way, precariously, on the red roads of the Deep South, on low farms, poor pelting villages, sheepcotes, and mills— people I knew only from books, as I’d first known Africans— and I felt beckoned home.

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