The renowned travel writer explains why he gave up on an African adventure.
My phone is ringing. It’s Paul Theroux. I’ve just come out of the toilet at the Royal Horse Guards Hotel. There are about three minutes till my interview with the travel writer is due to begin. Theroux tells me he hasn’t had lunch, so he’s going to eat while we chat; he says he’s in the restaurant. I hang up. Jot down one final question in my notebook and head into the restaurant. There’s an older gent, don’t think it’s him, no, go further in and spot him.
He’s a little man, shrivelled by travel and the demands of promoting his latest book — The Last Train to Zona Verde — in London. Though one can only imagine that flogging copies to rapt audiences here is helluva less demanding than the Angolan bus trips his travelogue describes.
But let’s get back to the beginning. A double espresso is delivered to me. Theroux orders fish and chips, and we are chatting about South Africa. Perhaps it was the rush from Euston station across town to Whitehall only 20 minutes before. Perhaps the coffee is taking too long to have an effect. But either way, I’m a little bit stunned. The man next to me is soft-spoken and gentle, polite and engaging — like an avuncular professor. If this really is Paul Theroux, he must be a different man to the one I encountered in his book — a man weary, wary and rather depressed. A glass-half-empty kind of guy, always on the look out — it seems — for a negative spin on things.
South Africa. His questions ripple, one after the other, like an incoming tide. I am flattered: Paul Theroux, world’s greatest living travel writer (according to some, at least) is asking me about President Jacob Zuma. About the mines. And Marikana. And my home language (do I speak Afrikaans?).
“I love South Africa; I think it’s full of promise,” he tells me. “Cape Town, as you can see: I’m totally sold on it — an absolutely wonderful city. It’s very well run, a great place to visit. There’s a tourist infrastructure in place now. I think the reason is the World Cup; I think that that gave people a sense of civic pride, and it got them used to lots of foreign people coming. I think people realise Cape Town is a great destination. I think it is too. But for a writer like me, it’s great, but as I mentioned in the book, if you’re having a nice time, what’s there to write about? Sushi bars?”
Before he heads north (the aim of his trip is to travel from Cape Town up the west coast of Africa to Timbuktu), Theroux does manage to escape the sushi bars with a few sorties into Cape Town’s townships. He seems impressed by the new housing and infrastructure at New Rest, which had been home to shacks on his previous trip (charted in Dark Star Safari) over a decade ago.
A few pages are dedicated to moralising about township tours which, in the book, he labels as “a voyeurism of poverty” and “exploitation”. Township dwellers serving as guides or selling curios “had discovered their misery was marketable”, he writes. I should have asked him why he saw entrepreneurship in these harsh terms. When he described certain Guguletu restaurants as having “been discovered by Cape Town foodies and cautiously visited, not just for the meal but for the novelty of the filth and menace of their surroundings”, I should’ve asked how on earth could he automatically assume that the novelty of poverty was the motive for the middle classes patronising these establishments.
But I didn’t. Just as I didn’t ask him why he had to melodramatically describe the city’s smog as “the poisonous cloud of dust that hung above the Cape Flats” — as if he was observing a miniature Bhopal from the elevated comfort of Constantia Glen vineyard.
As he ploughs through his fish and chips, Theroux tells me that he has tried to present a nuanced view of the continent. “I don’t want to be negative about it. I used to live in Africa and I know that the appearance of something isn’t necessarily the reality. You also can’t sum it up — you can’t go there and think you’ve got the story just by visiting.
If my coffee hadn’t finished by then, I should’ve been spluttering over this, and saying, “But!” Theroux has an eye for detail, and captures faces and landscapes with charming exactitude (poisonous dust clouds notwithstanding). Nuance, however, is not his greatest strength. This book is peddling a simple narrative. Africa is complex, contradictory and inconsistent — yet Theroux fashions from this depth a superficial story of squandered promise and miserable decline. Of course you might argue that he is merely observing what he is seeing. But Theroux’s flaw is that he takes these observations and projects them onto a grander, more generalised story of an entire continent, reducing sights to symbols that represent Africa as a whole.
Africa is complex, contradictory and inconsistent — yet Theroux fashions from this depth a superficial story of squandered promise and miserable decline.
And so after the clean, colonial ambience of Windhoek and Swakopmund (which he rather enjoys), Theroux’s journeying takes him across Namibia’s Vet Fence, where “the more familiar Africa of skinny, hungry-looking children wincing in sunlight” appears. The history of Tsumkwe, a village in north-eastern Namibia he visits to give a talk at a UNESCO event, is, to him, “like the timeline of sub-Saharan Africa, the history of Africa in a parable of exploitation and decline”.
Exaggerations and broad brushstrokes abound. “In Africa every rural village is different, but every city is the same, and a perfect fright,” he writes towards the end of the book, when he’s had enough of Luanda. “Urban Africa” gets the blanket description of “twitching decrepitude”.
This is not the subtlety one expects of someone who has lived in Africa and has travelled extensively through it. But then again, to his mind, “A shanty town outside Cape Town is pretty much like a shanty town in Angola,” he tells me.
From the Namibian border, Theroux takes a squashed, meandering ride through still battle-scarred southern Angola to Lubango, a mouldering town where he spends some time teaching writing at a college. He takes a bus to the old slave city of Benguela before heading to Luanda, a destination unlikely to grace a top 10 city list of his anytime soon.
Theroux is appalled — by the poverty, the squalor. He’s appalled by the gross inequality too. “There’s money shooting out of the ground… it doesn’t make any difference to the lives of most people,” he tells me. Other African countries crave having the oil Angola has, he says, but it’s a dangerous gift: “It’s like a lottery winner who gets the money, and either wastes it or it gets stolen.”
Earlier, when discussing his first travel book, The Great Railway Bazaar (written, he says, when he couldn’t come up with an idea for a new novel), he mentioned “When you leave home and you’re on your own you find out a lot about yourself — what you want and how much solitude you can stand and you make discoveries on the way.”
Someone else younger, stronger — someone who’s interested in that kind of thing could do a book on the big, horrible cities.
And so, I ask him about some of the discoveries on this trip. He mentions Angola’s massive wealth, which he hadn’t been aware of. But a more personal discovery was that “the road has an end — that I got to the end of the road. I got to a place and I thought if I keep on writing, I’m just going to keep on writing the same thing — townships, rap, graffiti, big horrible cities — you know, like the cities in Angola. I have no interest in them at all. Someone can write — maybe you could write about it. Someone else younger, stronger — someone who’s interested in that kind of thing could do a book on the big, horrible cities.
The only way to head north was to travel via “one big horrible city to another big horrible city” — Kinshasa, Lagos and others. There were no back roads: war and dysfunctional government had ensured that.
I delicately ponder why he bothered to do the trip then if he had known this. But he says he only discovered this when he got to Angola. “I didn’t know what I would find.” Even in the age of the internet, Theroux says, “You don’t know what the road is going to be like until you get there.”
And so the journey to Timbuktu is abandoned. The prospect of miles after miles of urban misery is too much to bear. His case for giving up is strengthened by the emergence of the Islamic militant group Boko Haram, which has a tendency to blow up Christians in north-eastern Nigeria, the area he was hoping to travel through.
But back to the cities. What I still can’t quite get to the nub of — although I try to find out through my too-gentle questioning — is how did he know it would be all the same from Luanda onwards? With some conviction he writes: “Of course I could put my head down and travel farther, but I knew what I would find: decaying cities, hungry crowds, predatory youths and people abandoned by their governments, people who saw every foreigner as someone they could hit up for money, since it was apparent that only foreigners seemed to care about the welfare of Africans.”
Where did this conviction come from? He hadn’t travelled to this region before. Was he relying on hearsay from expats in bars? Or on the jaded insights of Kalunga, the Angolan filmmaker he befriends in Luanda? On this, I fail to extract a satisfactory answer.
Just over 47 minutes into the recording, when I’m finally warming up, Theroux tells me he has to get changed for another appointment and says I can ask him one more question. I’m nonplussed. I look at the squiggles in my notebook. I should be asking him about one of his final experiences in the book, when he skirts the edges of Luanda slum. People are dancing. He writes: “The leaping and laughter did not seem mirthful to me, but rather frantic, like the overstimulation I’d seen in African cities. It was closer to hysteria or that sorry chattering you hear from someone on the verge of panic. It was at times like a frenzy.” The laughter sounded like “like an amplified death rattle”. Did he speak to these people? Did he find out if they’re really freaking out, or if they are perhaps just having a jolly good time? No — he merely observed, and made his own judgments. He surrendered to age and reticence, abandoning curiosity for the comfort of his own prejudices. I should be asking why. But I don’t. I opt for something safer. Anodyne. I ask him about the pull of Africa.
“For anyone who’s lived in Africa, the pull of Africa is the landscape, the people and your personal history with it.” He believes that what happens to Africa is what’s happening to the world. “Africa’s not a different planet: Africa has the same problems that everywhere has … The pull of Africa is the pull of the world. At a certain age you want to find out, what’s going to happen to the world? Is it going to hell or are we going to survive? From my point of view, it’s not looking good — there’s too many people. The cities are too big. What’s everyone going to do?”
“If you want to understand a place you go with the intention of writing about it because then you notice more things,” he says. “Writing about a place makes you more attentive. If you and I were just having a beer somewhere talking, you’d be less attentive.” He recalls observing the decline of Malawi (where he taught in his twenties) at the hands of its late dictator, Hastings Banda. “I was disenchanted but I also thought, well this is kind of interesting. So I’ve kept visiting and writing about [Africa]. I will keep visiting but I don’t think I’m going to write any more books about it.”
At this news, I can’t help but feel rather relieved.
This is an edited version of an article first published at AERODROME on August 22, 2013.