Agostinho Neto, Amnesty International, Angola xenophobia, Cape Town Urbanization, Lubango, Malawi, Paul Theroux, Paul Theroux Peace Corps, Politics and Prose, Robert Mugabe, The Last Train to Zona Verde
While I believe I have only read one of Paul Theroux’s books, the travelogue Dark Star Safari, his political activism as a Peace Corps volunteer (which ultimately got him expelled from Malawi) has fascinated me. Theroux made an appearance at Politics and Prose yesterday, to promote his new book The Last Train to Zona Verde (which appears to focus on South Africa, Namibia, and Angola but draws from a trip that went as far north as Nigeria as I understand it).
Theroux opened by lamenting the ‘vanishing bookstore’ and discussing his latest novel, Lower River, which examines an American who returns to his Peace Corps village in Malawi following some personal crises. The man, who finds himself unable to leave (despite his wishes to the contrary), reflects on what he thought he could achieve by returning to his Peace Corps post and ultimately concludes that the causes of all his woes stem from his involvement in Africa.
However, the main thrust of the night was to promote The Last Train to Zona Verde, which he portrayed as a quasi sequel to Dark Star Safari, this time set in Africa’s South West coast. Dark Star Safari ended at Cape Town, a city Theroux apparently likes immensely and which he described as the only city in sub-Saharan Africa with aspirations of grandeur. This work picks up in Cape Town, where Theroux was awed by the sprawl of shanty towns in the decade since his previous visit Theroux spoke about the insights gained from crossing borders and navigating one’s own way (he got in a dig on the economist Joseph Stiglitz who he met, not sure where, and critiqued for the insights he did not get by flying in to Luanda and failing to substantively explore the country).
Theroux admitted that this approach was not without risk. He apparently had his identity stolen in Namibia and spoke about his insulting reception when crossing into Angola, a country he described as “xenophobic with reason.”
Theroux portrayed his interest in Angola as the primary force behind his trip; He was only able to get his visa by committing to teach in the southern city of Lubango. The incarceration of Angola’s founding president, Agostinho Neto, by Portuguese colonizers was one of the inspirations for the founding of Amnesty International (AI) in the 1960’s. Theroux became intrigued by the Angolan situation in the 1970s, when following its independence in the middle of that decade, AI lobbied President Neto for the release of his own prisoners of conscience.
Theroux dwelled on the absence of big game in Angola as a result of a legacy of land mines from almost three decades of civil war. He portrayed it as a diabolically expensive country with no tourists but plenty of Chinese settlers and oil men. He also went off on an extended tangent about nubility ceremonies, which he stumbled on after consuming fly encrusted chicken and had explained to him by an Italian speaking Angolan in a rural village.
The Q&A was brief. I asked a question about changing gender norms in Malawi (I was hoping he’d talk about Madonna’s school) but I instead got a long winded answer about the poor governance of Hastings Banda and his successor, Bakili Muluzi (‘anyone who puts their face on the national currency, that country is a hell hole’). He also wondered how Mugabe could stay in power for 33 years and criticized his shopaholic wife (but admitted that her traits may be characteristic of First Ladies in general).
The crowd was not at all diverse, which I found a bit disappointing. See below.
So sad I missed this, I have read many of Theroux’s books (but not the Dark Star Safari) I enjoy his writing although at times it can be extremely stereotypical. Glad you wrote about it.
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Neil Cotiaux said:
One correction: Mr. Theroux’s travels did not take him as far north as Nigeria. While a trip to parts north of Angola was his original goal, he ended up abandoning that leg of his journey, a bittersweet decision that is chronicled in the book.
Thank you for this post on the author’s recent appearance.
Thank you for noting this. I’m not sure why I was confused by this during the talk. I’ll also note that I subsequently did read this book, so I apologize for not going back to correct this.
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