Traveling Where Angels Fear To Tread: Paul Theroux

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There are some things you only do if you’re very brave or very stupid. Paul Theroux isn’t stupid (he claims to actually enjoy James Joyce), so he must be really brave, because in “The Last Train to Zona Verde” he did the kind of thing that makes most of our parents have nightmares just thinking about: he went to sub-Saharan Africa and poked around.

Funnily enough, despite traveling in places where most Americans are told to stay indoors, the only crime he is subjected to is fly-laden food and white collar credit card theft.

Theroux seems to have mellowed in his age, and the grumpiness that characterized his earlier books is far less prominent in this one. He seems to be looking more for people doing good things than people doing shitty ones.

And that age is very present throughout the book, which Theroux honestly says will probably depict his last trip to Africa. He’s nearing the end of his life, and it’s been a good one, but there’s still more, always more. Not only is there more to see, but there’s the joy of seeing things again, seeing how they’ve changed, turning old eyes on what is unexpectedly new.

Not only does Theroux have an awareness of age, he has an impressive awareness of youth, and of metamorphosis. He’s a wonderfully self-aware traveler (especially in Africa, notorious for grossly unaware tourism), and everywhere he looks he evaluates his own eye. He looks his own prejudices in the face, and accepts them. He looks at other people, and wants to know what they think of themselves–not just what he thinks of them.

There’s a gravitas that many old writers have, born from their comfort and experience. Theroux has it in spades, and it makes this book very likely the best of his travel literature. 436267

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