I'm trying to keep busy during my "break" and one of those ways is to read a few books.
The Last Train to Zona Verde by Paul Theroux
Theroux makes an ambitious journey along the western side of Africa starting from Cape Town, the continent’s southernmost city in what is to be Theroux’s last in Africa and would have seen him travel up the continent along the western coast. But Theroux does not complete it. Dispirited, beaten down and weary, he calls it quits almost midway in Angola.
He starts off from Cape Town, first touring its vast township slums, then goes to Namibia by bus, travels around the country and attends a conference in the deep east, takes a detour to visit an elephant safari camp in Botswana, then goes into Angola, where he gets stuck in a remote area near a village for days when his minibus breaks down, which ironically is one of his better experiences.
Having been struck by the vast poverty-filled townships on the outskirts of Cape Town and Windhoek, Namibia, he sees worse in Angola and is utterly disgusted. Angola is a country that is one of the world’s biggest oil producers, but also one of the poorest. Having been ravaged by a 30-year civil war that lasted into the 1990s, the people have been neglected by a corrupt, oligarchic government. Theroux sees desperation and poverty everywhere in Angola, from the capital Luanga, where growing slums encircle the city, to smaller towns like Benguela and Lubango.
Theroux holds nothing back in his final chapters where he explains how and why he got to his breaking point, despairing over the squalor and the “broken, unspeakable” and “huge, unsustainable” cities: “No poverty on earth could match the poverty in an African shantytown.” Theroux believes that continuing on the journey would only mean going into more cities and hence, the same sight and disappointment over and over. Then there is also the danger. Timbuktu was Theroux’s intended endpoint but by then, Mali had been engulfed in civil war and the fabled city was in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists. Nigeria was also on the itinerary but Boko Haram was, and is still, ravaging a large part of the north.
There are a few bright spots such as isolated Angolan village where Theroux hears native ceremonies every night and see people living a traditional life, and a visit to a remote Bushman (Ju/’hoansi) community in Namibia. The book veers into an anthropological tone about these people, who may be the oldest living people in the world, but even then, there is disappointment when Theroux realizes everything is not as it appears.
The bluntness of Theroux’s despair is a bit shocking to me, despite having read a couple of Theroux’s other books, as it can make one wonder if there is any hope for Africa.
There is, of course, though perhaps not in places Theroux visited such as Angola in particular. I have been to South Africa and visited townships in Cape Town and Johannesburg, so I know Theroux isn’t exaggerating the physical size and extent of poverty there though there is also progress (he does mention this as well). Theroux contends that any improvement in the slums results in more people coming and hence the poverty remains constant while the slums get larger.
While one could wonder whether Theroux should have bothered publishing this book if he felt so hopeless about those countries, the truth is there are very few books or articles, at least in the English language, about Namibia and Angola, and his writing is still a worthy if not pleasant contribution to literature on those countries.
The Lower River by Paul Theroux
The Lower River, published in 2012, is partially based on Theroux’s real-life experience, being set in a remote village in Malawi. After Ellis Hock, a retired American businessman, is divorced by his wife of three decades, he then decides to close his store and return to the one place he was ever truly happy – the village of Malabo in deep southern Malawi where he served four idyllic years as a Peace Corps member fresh out of college. You can sense where this is going.
Hock flies to Malawi, reaches Malabo, meets the village “head” whose grandfather knew him, and then decides to stay for a while to do good work like rebuild the village school where he taught at decades ago. Soon, he realizes that his magnanimous venture will not work out and that the village is no longer the same as it was the last time Hock was there. Things soon take a dark turn and Hock, who comes down with malaria, becomes trapped in the village. He is isolated, weak, desperate and comes close to breaking down several times. There are late-night tribal secret society rites, orphan villages full of feral kids and a mysterious compound hidden in a border zone, that amplify the sense of dread and despair.
The novel is a compelling read, with each twist pushing Hock into deeper and darker trouble. Hock’s naivete, fueled by his mid-life crisis, combines with third-world poverty and culture clashes to create a chilling outcome. No doubt, there is a trace of Heart of Darkness in this.
However, what Theroux really wants to do is present a few themes common to Africa such as the prevalence of Western development aid and its effect on locals, with the messianic complex of some whites in wanting to “save” poor Africans, also known as the white man’s burden, and conversely, the question of how much progress African communities have made.
He partially succeeds though some parts in the book like the village of wild orphans seem too outlandish (I don’t think these actually exist but Malawi really does have about a million AIDS orphans due to a high AIDS rate killing off many adults). The Lower River paints bleak pictures about Africa and the foolishness of Westerners like Hock who want to save the third world, however sincere they may feel, without really understanding the realities on the ground. Despite the cynical nature of the book, Theroux gives a sound description of Malawi, when Hock arrives and spends a few days in the city of Blantyre, and Malabo that does well enough to present a stark image of the places.
Granted I’ve only read a couple of Theroux’s books, but reading through Dark Star Safari, in which he traveled from Cape Town to Cairo, you might even think he hated traveling and didn’t give a damn about the third world, especially Africa. But his complaints seem to stem from genuine care about the places he writes about and not mere arrogance, and he is often right in a lot of his observations (I enjoyed Dark Star Safari a lot actually), as pessimistic or cynical as they seem. And with his years spent living and working in Africa (Malawi, Uganda), he has substantial experience of sub-Saharan Africa and the issue of development.
From the Ruins of Empire (The Revolt against the West and the Remaking of Asia) by Pankaj Mishra
Pankaj Mishra is a respected non-fiction writer from India who has written several nonfiction books about India, South Asia and Asia. From the Ruins of Empire (The Revolt against the West and the Remaking of Asia), the first book of his that I’ve read, is a sweeping historical account of several major Asian intellectuals in the 19th and 20th century who challenged European imperialism at a time when its power loomed over much of Asia. Asia was largely subordinate, with India and most of Southeast Asia colonized by European powers, China defeated in the Opium Wars and bullied, Iran subdued, and the Middle East ruled by the Ottomans, who themselves would see their empire torn up by the Europeans after World War I.
Several of these intellectuals, besides challenging European domination and trying to revive their ailing countries, also shared a vision of pan-Asian unity. Mishra is a bit liberal by including Turkey as an Asian country because if anything, Turkey has been trying hard to become part of Europe via EU membership. That aside, the historical account of various countries across Asia, specifically China, Japan, and Iran, is compelling.
One of the more intriguing Asian thinkers profiled is Jamal al-Din al-Afghani who traveled across the Islamic world -Egypt, Iran, Turkey – agitating for a pan-Islamic sphere. Due to recent events, I couldn’t help think of ISIS while reading this part though al-Afghani seemingly had a more benign vision that alternated between tradition and modernism or democracy with Islamic elements. However, the desire to modernize while being able to retain Islamic characteristics is a struggle that is still true today throughout the Arab region (I admit I am not an expert on the Middle East or the Arab region).
Other major thinkers/activists include Chinese Liang Qichao and Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet and Nobel laureate, who is admired in China and Japan. Mishra does well to bind the stories of these disparate individuals by linking them to a similar purpose and a common foe (Western powers). The end of World War II saw European colonization brought to an end in Asia and the “rise” of China and India and Japan makes for a tempting vision of Asia rising. There is a trace of sympathy and admiration for China, who Mishra sees as having risen to a power, though he is also aware about the injustices in that country. Mishra concludes with the thought that Western dominance is short-lived but admits that deep challenges remain, such as Pakistan and Indonesia. Personally, I think he is too optimistic about Asia and the end of Western dominance, but the book is still a fascinating and informative read.