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The Mislaid Continent

by Sarah Ruden

The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari, by Paul Theroux (Houghton Mifflin, 368 pp., $27)

During his 40 years as a travel writer, Paul Theroux has specialized in journeys in unusual places, by more or less ordinary local means — trains were the favorite, but even a canoe would serve. Originally a Peace Corps teacher in Africa and by preference a loner everywhere, he has been compulsive about sensory observation and personal encounter. Romanticism, hype, and mythmaking are his bugbears.

His hard nose may have been a nuisance to people close to him, such as V. S. Naipaul, with whom he publicly feuded, but among popular authors he is perhaps the sole living champion of the full, pitiless story of the Third World’s landscape. For example, in a previous book on Africa, Dark Star Safari (2002), he made clear the horror of the prevailing deforestation.

His truth-telling was paradoxically soothing to me. During a long residence in Africa, I saw (and heard, tasted, and smelled) a great deal of bad news that was unacknowledged worldwide, including the massive webs of erosion ruts in misused land that had once been a farming paradise, and I often complained: “Nobody’s allowed to tell what’s happening.” It was well-meaning people I liked, rather than malignant ones I was afraid of, who tended to silence me, a privileged foreigner plagued with the usual guilt and self-doubt. To overcome that resistance takes a heroic degree of misanthropy, and Theroux has had that going for him from the beginning.

Today, however, the sort of confrontation he cherishes is less illuminating. He reports in his new book that he planned a trip up the western side of Africa from Cape Town to Angola, and then inland to the Congo, then through Gabon and Cameroon and Nigeria, to end in Timbuktu, in Mali. He gets as far as Angola but seems overwhelmed less by disgust, horror, and fear than by boredom: Except for something of a reprieve in well-run, placidly colonial southern and central Namibia, the urban slums merely worsen monotonously, there is less and less to see in the countryside — almost all of Angola’s wildlife has been eaten, or blasted by landmines; abandoned farmhouses are falling down; and, instead of traditional villages, there are towns like transit camps to hell — and the more and more constant danger becomes almost dull.

To a Westerner passing through, there is indeed no history or ethnicity perceptible in the reeks, the garbage piling the streets, the fly-blown food, the shelters made of cinderblocks and scraps, and the cheap Chinese buckets and other implements. And there is no longer even a question of a white man’s moving through Nigeria or Mali alone by “normal” ground transport: Al-Qaeda affiliates such as Boko Haram will actually kill to punish the wearing of Western clothing. (Theroux’s trip took place in 2011, before some effective if brutal pushback against the militants.) David Livingstone’s missionary routes, through the relatively peaceful and hospitable Africa of the 19th century, are closed.

In this book, for as far as he travels — at last deciding against a train ride into the “green zone” of the title — Theroux seems rhetorically stuck even while still on the go. The book opens in medias res, with his delighted bush trek led by real Bushmen in Namibia, far away from the developed world’s crises he has heard about on his shortwave radio. But he voices his disillusionment immediately: When his companions return to their campsite, they put on their ragged Western clothes again. The trek was “what I saw. Or was it an illusion?”

No! I want to yell: You could tell by their bodies and facial features and unique language sounds that they were who they said they were. You experienced that they knew what they were doing: They expertly located game by sound; they found an edible tuber, and you shared it. How much of your ancestors’ livelihood and folkways can you replicate? Why should Africans’ adaptations, their very opportunities (like your visit), be a matter of ambivalence or despair for you? How must they appear, for you to be able to imagine that they have a future, as you and yours do?

Back at the start of his trip, Theroux takes many guided tours of the informal townships around Cape Town, but deplores his own and his fellow tourists’ voyeurism and stresses the irony of making money from misery — though some of the miserable, turned entrepreneurial through this lawful and honest activity, are not nearly as miserable as before. He also gives rather short shrift to evidence that both domestic and international spending on World Cup soccer gave South Africa’s economy a new lease on life.

Ordinary tourism — of which Theroux is not a fan — with its demands for at least functional relationships up and down the social scale, is in fact a very positive force in a place like Africa, but to acknowledge that, you’d have to at least understand what a “people person” is, if not be one. Africans are the ultimate “people people.” In spotless modern restrooms, women leave the stall doors open so as not to lose sight of each other while laughing and conversing without a pause, yet Theroux views communal roadside calls of nature with an apocalyptic sort of revulsion. I suspect that some of his despair comes not from the admittedly appalling things he encounters but from his perception that, whatever happens, Africans will continue to be themselves, out-and-out different from himself — and from his certainty that this can’t turn out well.

Theroux gets to know international-development professionals, including an administrator of the American Millennium Challenge Corporation. He is skeptical about the claims that things will go better now because of the powerful organization’s strict rules: It deals only with fairly elected, reasonably honest governments, and withdraws right away when standards are not met. The author, of course, doesn’t put much hope in the give-and-take, do-the-best-you-can-with-what-you-have approach.

In Namibia, Theroux’s credit-card information is stolen, adding a little over $48,000 in fraud and the consequent difficulty in getting cash to his eventual reasons for ditching his itinerary. The aftermath of a stay in a luxurious safari park, where well-heeled visitors can actually ride the elephants, yields the news that one of the trainers was stomped to death by his charge. He is one of three upbeat individuals Theroux spends time with who die prematurely (the others from a stabbing and a heart attack).

These are all circumstances in which his former strengths become almost laughable weaknesses. As I learned during roughly a decade in South Africa, through ho-hum, middle-class activities he would no doubt sneer at — settling into suburbs, working in business, working for NGOs, traveling with religious groups, going on run-of-the-mill safaris, coming to rely on a couple of servants — the Third World is where you have to see yourself in proportion within the human condition, not stand apart from it and observe and conclude without any help from inside.

This is true of practical matters as well as philosophical ones. Submit to everyday activities in South Africa, and you will find out, for example, all about the morons with their mahout goads who say they can train African elephants, and you will not let them heft you up onto one. These are wild animals; respect that fact. You will also not let a high-spending-limit credit card out of your sight in the hands of an unsupervised backwater hotel clerk. Your great-aunt knows the bromides that apply.

But Theroux, in his isolation in the grim landscape, can do no better than ask, “What am I doing here?” as if that were the important question. Worse, he states, “I never met anyone who said, as the Dutch missionaries in long-ago Malawi often did, ‘I plan to be buried here.’” It’s not accurate to say (with a snort) that he doesn’t get out much; he gets out too far, all on his own, beyond millions of people who would ask him, “Where the hell else would I be buried?”

And the same millions could easily explain African urbanization, a great puzzle to him. Why do people in Africa (long after forced displacements and bush wars) move from the countryside that provides them basic resources to squalid, dangerous slums where there are no jobs to be had, where young men are seen standing around, doing nothing — not, I would add, even organizing gangs as in Latin America, or taking informal employment, as in any Asian city where industrial work runs short?

Ask the migrants — not judgmentally — why they came to the city, and they may just tell you: To get theirs, the things they’re told they’re entitled to. Theroux doesn’t report social visits in the urban settlements, where he might, by the way, be surprised at how hard it is to find, at least in South Africa, a shack so poor that it doesn’t have a TV, with an African-language channel playing game shows, feverishly anti-Western news, and soaps strong on the Cinderella theme — media that complement the rap music so irritating to him on the road. Africans are daily promised a bizarre combination of revenge and compensation for oppression. The message is an endless source of inertia, frustration, and rage.

Whether things get better depends strictly on whether the conversation between Africa and the West continues and expands and is acted on. Africa, unfortunately, is a continent for which no one has a practical foreign policy — a reasonable, openly stated set of requests and offers that may become a modus vivendi, if not a friendship. It’s too bad, because Africa’s residents are, as a rule, extremely able people.

“Africa is not for sissies,” goes the song, but not being a sissy means daring to be middling, and commonsensical, and persnickety, yet to keep making the effort, to admit the necessity of bourgeois commitment. We hear a lot about the pick-and-choose attitude, the ever-threatening abandonments of globalization, but the great truth of the long run is that we and Africans and everyone else are stuck with each other. That may be the only news too bad for Theroux to take.

– Sarah Ruden is a classicist, poet, and journalist. Her next book, The Music Inside the Whale, and Other Marvels: A Translator on the Beauty of the Bible, will be published in 2014.

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