In the Boston Globe, I’ve got a review of Paul Theroux’s latest (and possibly last) major travel book, Last Train to Zona Verde. For long stretches it’s really good, but I still found myself disappointed with the end, where Theroux cuts his trip short. “I could put my head down and travel farther,” he writes, “but I know what I would find: decaying cities, hungry crowds, predatory youths, and people abandoned by their governments.”
In the review, I admit that it’s easy to criticize Theroux from your reading chair — but also that his stubborn explorations are what have always made him so special. I think he’d have a counter to my complaint, and while I didn’t have room to acknowledge it in the review I do here.
When Theroux published Riding the Iron Rooster, which described his mid-80s trip through China, several reviewers attacked him for being too pessimistic about the Middle Kingdom and its leaders. (One review’s headline? “Grouchy Traveler Back on the Rails Again.”) Theroux responded in an essay titled “Travel Writing: The Point of It.” The best travel writing, he argued, “makes the immediate future of the particular country coherent. The books are also, incidentally, the adventures of individuals.”
Theroux knew what he was talking about when it came to China’s immediate future. After all, he wrote his essay in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square, which made his criticisms of China’s ruling class look freakishly prescient. But that, to Theroux, was simply the mark of good travel writing: “I had just written truthfully of what I had seen over the course of a year in China,” he observed at the end of his essay, “and writing the truth can sometimes seem like prophecy.”
I think Theroux would say something similar about his new book on Africa: it’s so bleak about the continent’s cities because bleakness is the appropriate response now (and, in a few years, will seem prophetic). This may be true — Theroux’s track record is certainly good — but I’d counter his counter like this: in Riding the Iron Rooster, he made it all the way across China. In Zona Verde, he quit. He settled for “knowing what he would find.”
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