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Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Last Train to Zona Verde by Paul Theroux: Book Review by Don Wallace

Last Train to Ho’opili?

A journey through Africa illuminates our plight


One paradox of TheLast Train to Zona Verde, Paul Theroux’s 46th book and his latest about Africa, is that it’s also one of the best meditations on Hawaii you’ll ever read.

But first, why Africa? Because, writes Theroux, as a 1963 Peace Corp volunteer, “I was free in this great green continent, liberated from my family and its paternalism just at the time that many African countries had liberated themselves from the paternalistic hand of colonialism.” Sounds like many a haole, surfer-hippie, self-described adventurer in Polynesia, doesn’t it?

He’s been back to Africa since–and seen the promise of that liberation slide into tyranny and repression and worse, a loss of hope. But this trip is his summing up. At age 70, he will go as far as he can with just a credit card, a throwaway cell phone and a duffel bag: an old white man in shabby clothes, hopefully “invisible.” Maybe he won’t come back.

In fact he wonders if he isn’t asking fate for an ending, whether “I was setting off to suffer and die.” Spoiler alert: he doesn’t. Theroux goes alone from Cape Town, South Africa up to schizophrenic Namibia–99 percent miserable, but with an ultra-rich elite, an Angelina Jolie-funded celebrity birthing center and an Okavango Delta elephant reserve fantastic in price and exquisite in irony. From there he pushes on into war-torn and distinctly unfriendly Angola. Throughout Africa he sees populations of “. . . drunken men, idle boys and overworked women.” (A little too close for comfort, that one.)

One irony he will revisit often is how rich these “poor” countries are–in gold, diamonds, oil and minerals like rare earths–but how nothing trickles down. (See D.H. Horton, Ho’opili land grab; Parsons Brinckerhoff, rail and now the aiport; Hawaiian lands ceded and “gifted” to shopping centers, developments and the military.) Yet the U.S. federal government spends $67 million a year on building tourism in Namibia–and none, he notes, on Hawaii, Louisiana or Mississippi, places where poverty is just as real.

Aid, what Theroux calls “the virtue industry,” comes in for a scathing dissection. (See Q&A with Theroux is on page 23.) So does tourism. So does our willful blindness, preferring the mythic and totally wrong belief that the Bushmen in The Gods Must Be Crazy really exist in a state of nature, as if “Saving the Children” doesn’t sap communities of self-respect and self-government, in addition to ruining local economies and substituting ones built on bureaucrats and warlords distributing sacks of rice and cans of Spam. (Just as in Samoa, Guam, Tinian . . . and places closer to home.)

A low-profile resident of Hawaii for 23 years, Theroux writes not for sensation but for seeing. He goes places. He shuns the heroic pose and the weepy cri du coeur. As a result, we are all the wiser.

The Last Train to Zona Verde, Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013
Hardcover, 368 pages, $27

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