“What am I doing here?”  That was not the question that Paul Theroux expected to be asking himself not long after he returned to his beloved Africa and exclaimed that he was “happy again.”  His last African journey, chronicled in Dark Star Safari (2003), was south by land from Cairo to Cape Town.  This time, he would start in Cape Town and travel north along the western edge of the continent, through Namibia and Angola, and ending, if all went well, in the fabled desert oasis of Timbuktu, in what was once the heart of French West Africa.

The trip did not go well.

So what did he see on this, his last journey to the zona verde?  The phrase is Portuguese for “green zone,” or anywhere outside the city, and is “a euphemism for the bush.”  In South Africa, the Cape itself is idyllic: temperate, prosperous, and green.  But not far inland, on the hot, dirt-encrusted plains, sprawl endless squatter camps, where every upgrade, every improvement is overwhelmed by the African rule of population: “People keep coming.”

His journey north through the Western Cape takes him through a “green bosomy veldt,” sunlit and serene, glowing with vineyards, orchards, and dairy farms, but the farther north he goes, the drier and more barren the landscape becomes, and the more merciless the sun.

Namibia is a revelation.  At first this sparsely populated desert country seems to him almost First World.  The few cities are clean and well built, and everything seems to work.  There are 40,000 permanent-resident Germans living in their former colony of South West Africa, and thousands more spend their winters there.  Yet closer inspection reveals it to be something of a mirage.  Just inland of the pretty coastal village of Swakopmund, he finds the black township of Mondesa, with 30,000 indigent Africans living in shacks and shanties.  It’s the African rule again.  A resident German tells him that he and his countrymen all keep their German passports.

Continuing north, his trip begins to take on the feel of Conrad’s nightmarish journey up the Congo, fictionalized in Heart of Darkness.  Theroux passes the lonely graves of Boer Trekkers, spots destitute villages in the middle of nowhere, but nothing prepares him for the dystopic, nightmare world of Angola.  “Angola was a country without a plan, a free-for-all driven by greed.”  The government was a “thieving tyranny,” rich with oil money but “utterly uninterested in its people.”  Some of the countryside was beautiful (“even on the worst day in the African bush, the sky and the space offer relief”), but it was denuded of wildlife, the civil wars and land mines having killed it all.  The cities were “a horror . . . glary light, people crowding the roads, the stinking dust and diesel fumes.”  Children and teenagers follow him, pestering him for money.  “Angolans live among garbage heaps.”  The air reeks of urine and excrement.  New construction was going on in the capital of Luanda, but “everything looked crooked and improvisational, with a vibration of doomsday looming.”  “I became conscious of entering a zone of irrationality,” and going farther north “meant traveling into madness.”

Theroux has completed, or nearly completed, all of his previous journeys.  Not this time.  Less than halfway through, weary with what he sees, short of money (his credit-card number was stolen in Namibia and quickly maxed out), fearing for his life, he aborts his journey.  Yet rather than disappointment or guilt, he feels relief and elation.  He is going home.

If this book has a theme specific to Africa, and also suggestive of the world outside of Africa, it is not so much disillusion as it is disillusion’s precursor, fantasy.  “Africa is just amazing.”  The words are those of a wealthy American woman dining at a luxurious game lodge deep inside the lush Okavango Delta in Botswana as she watches trumpeting elephants returning from the marsh against a flaming sky.  The place is gorgeous, and the lodge is sumptuous.  Its unique feature is the opportunity of riding these same elephants through the Okavango.  Theroux knows the owner, a charming and well-meaning South African who insists that his elephants are happy, his game reserve protects them from predation, and one day most will return to the wild.  The roux is at first impressed, but he also has his doubts.  In the morning, the chained elephants “looked impatient and vexed.”  During the ride, they pay no heed to directions and seem to do what they want.  Only months later, Theroux learns that one of the elephants has killed its handler, an amiable Australian whom Theroux had met, by knocking him to the ground and crushing him with its huge head.  The killer and its two siblings were shipped off to a Pittsburgh zoo.  It’s an obvious metaphor of well-meaning futility.

In Theroux’s telling, every outsider in Africa, whether diplomat, development expert, aid worker, high-end hunter, game-lodge jet-setter, or ordinary tourist, is a fantasist.  He speaks of “safari tourism, trophy hunting for dummies,” and likens the rich American and European game hunters to “oversized Boy Scouts.”  What all tourists in African experience is “a travesty in the precise meaning of the word: a parody, a dressing up in unnatural clothes.”  He regards it as the counterpart to foreign aid, both equally corrupting, harmful, and infantilizing.  The foreign oil men and mineral extractors live in luxurious, guarded enclaves.  Their only purpose: to loot the place, get rich, and get out.  Then there are the Chinese.  Clannish, hardworking, and tenacious, they are in Africa to stay.  And more arrive every day.  Their motto: “Heaven is high, and the emperor is far away.”

The biggest foreign fools of all are the Western celebrities practicing their ethic of conspicuous compassion.  Theroux tears into five of them: George Clooney, Madonna, Oprah Winfrey, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie.  (He doesn’t name them, but it’s obvious whom he means.)  “These stars act out their concern in public, their patronage rising to the level of a performance.”  The most despicable is “the ubiquitous meddler Bono, the frontman of U2.”  Bono had praised the signature song of Julius Malema, a racist demagogue who may one day be president of South Africa.  His ditty is called “Shoot the Boer.”  Theroux calls it “perfect for a South African politician on the make—tuneful, with few words, easy to remember, anti-white and an incitement to murder.”  Bono had likened it to an Irish nationalist folk song.  Since 1994, over 3,000 white South African farmers have been murdered by black thugs.  Theroux considers the Irish songman to be “an accessory” to such murders.

Even the white Africans he meets seem slightly disconnected from reality.  In Angola Theroux grows fond of a “grey eyed” businessman of Portuguese descent, whose grandfather was governor of the colony around the turn of the last century.  This good man considers Angola to be his country, and is optimistic about her future.  Nine months after his visit, Theroux learns that the man has been beaten to death in his seaside home by an intruder, for “a computer, a television, and a mobile phone.”

Only the black Africans seem realistic: They all want to leave.  On at least three different occasions, Theroux asks groups of students where they want to go.  Every time the answer is the same: America.  Why?  “For work and for enjoying” is one answer.  “They were specific about places.”  One says that “Austin, Texas, is the best place for parties.  Lots of bars, lots of music, and women.”  Future Americans.

“I want to see things as they are, to see myself as I am.”  That has been Theroux’s motto as a writer, and it’s a good one.  Besides his pellucid prose, it’s what makes his books worth reading.  He also believes that telling the truth about people and things is “prophetic,” as it suggests “aspects of the future.”  What he sees is that the African cities are growing, and that what lies outside the city (the zona verde) is being devastated and devoured to feed the cities.  At 70 years and after ten major journeys, Theroux has seen enough of the world to know that it is not improving.  He has no need to see anything more.  “I felt beckoned home.”


[The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari, by Paul Theroux (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) 353 pp., $27.00]