Out of Africa... Interviewing Paul Theroux
Paul Theroux is one of the world’s most influential travel writers. Born in Massachusetts, on graduating from university Theroux joined the Peace Corp in 1962, travelling to Malawi then Uganda to work as a teacher. This was the start of a long fascination with Africa, explored through many of his travel books and novels. During the 1970s, Theroux moved to Britain, where he lived for 17 years with his family, including sons Marcel, a novelist, and Louis, a documentary maker. Theroux’s novels include The Mosquito Coast (1981) and The Lower River (2012), but it is for the accounts of his classic overland travel adventures in books such as The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), The Old Patagonian Express (1979) and Dark Star Safari (2002) that he is best known.
Paul Theroux returns to Africa in his latest book, The Last Train to Zona Verde. When Compass editor Jennifer Cox met him on a recent visit to London, she asked whether travelling overland from Cape Town through Namibia and Botswana to Angola, spelled the end of the line for this veteran travel writer.
Jennifer Cox: How does it feel to be a travel legend?
Paul Theroux: I’m not a travel legend. If you’re looking for a travel legend it would have to be someone who really went through hell. A travel legend would be Henry Moreton Stanley crossing Africa on foot. It would be Francis Galton who went all over south-west Africa in the 19th century, the first English man to do so. Or one of my heroes Geoffrey Moorhouse who tried to cross the Sahara; The Fearful Void. I compiled a book called the Tao of Travel (2011). I read about 300 books for that, and so many of them were by people I admire, who have done much more than I did. So, I am not a legend, I’m just an asterisk on the great travel bookshelf.
JC: I think you’re being a bit too modest but… In your new book, The Last Train To Zona Verde, you say: ‘it’s in the nature of travel to be uncomfortable, if not scared silly.’ Does travel have to be hard?
PT: Yes, I think it does. Not just in an uncomfortable seat or dirty hotel, but to be uncertain of what’s coming next and what problem there is to solve. If it’s roses all the way, I honestly don’t think there’s much to write about or much to learn. If it’s easy all the travel’s been done for you, the trail’s been blazed. When you’re making your own way alone ... that’s what travel is: the discovery that you can solve a problem, find out what your limits are.
JC: So you believe there is a difference between travellers and tourists?
PT: That goes without saying: the tourist is having a good time with limited resources, so they have to make it work. I don’t disparage tourism at all, but it’s more a form of entertainment. Travel is messier: more uncertain, more difficult and not always a success.
JC: So travel is a series of challenges to pass. To that end, from The Old Patagonian Express through to the present day, it seems you’ve made a point of going to places that people are warning you against. In Last Train to Zona Verde, the warning ‘wait ‘til you get to Angola’ almost became a catchphrase.
PT: And always from people who hadn’t been. There are always a lot of warnings from people who haven’t done something, fewer from people who actually have. I’ve been to Angola; I wouldn’t now say don’t go, I’d say: keep your wits about you. The classic example is the Australians. They are always warning foreigners about the dangers of the Outback: the snakes, the scorpions, or if you’re paddling then the saltwater crocs. I’ve never had more warnings than when I was in Australia; the dangers are exaggerated, I mean how many people are killed by crocs in a year?
JC: In Britain, we seem very cautious with our children these days: kids don’t go off for hours or disappear on bikes the way we used to. Do you think we’re breeding a generation of timid travellers?
PT: The world seems more accessible now than when I was growing up: air travel is widely available; I started travelling before the jumbo jet, 50 years ago in the 1960s. These days people are very ‘knowing’ about a place, but really they’ve just Googled it. But look, I’ve made it my business to do this: I started it a long time ago and it’s been a way of life. I don’t think there’s any great virtue in what I’m doing. In other words, I’m just doing it and writing about it. And I have to be modest, as people have done so many greater things than me. I’m speaking at the Royal Geographical Society tonight, can you imagine the people who have spoken there? I’m pretty small potatoes.
JC: What was the idea behind Last Train to Zona Verde?
PT: I wanted to take a long interesting trip into the unknown (the motive for a lot of my travel). It was also to continue the trip I started in Dark Star Safari, and to fulfil the ambition of going to Angola. And it really was an old ambition because the county has been closed for so long. I’d never been to Namibia, and wanted to go there too. Dark Star Safari was such an enjoyable experience. I’d gone from Cairo to Cape Town: through some familiar places in Uganda and Malawi, and some unfamiliar places in Sudan, Ethiopia and Mozambique. It wasn’t all easy but it was very fulfilling. So I wanted to continue: to resume in Cape Town, look at places that I’d seen 10 years ago and then carry on to see places I’d longed to visit.
JC: What preparations did you make?
PT: The main problem was getting a visa into Angola: the country doesn’t welcome tourists and is suspicious of people travelling overland. Other than that, I looked at maps. I don’t look people up, so I didn’t need to take any phone numbers or worry about making arrangements. If you have a lot of time, you can go anywhere and do anything.
JC: And is that your strategy: to pick a destination, plot a rough route, the over-and- above that leave it to fate and chance?
PT: Yes, once I got the visa to Angola and a window of opportunity, I just set off. I wasn’t even sure when I’d come back.
JC: Travelling on a one-way ticket.
PT: They’re the best kind.
JC: Your novel The Mosquito Coast was made into a successful film [in 1986 starring Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren, directed by Peter Weir]. What do you think of Hollywood?
PT: It’s great: your book becomes a household name and you get paid for that. It’s a great experience and I recommend it; as far as believing in Hollywood though... take the money and run.
JC: Talking of money, there was a saying in the 1980s, that ‘Home Taping Is Killing Music’. Is blogging killing professional writing?
PT: No, the real problem is the death of the book store. You’re lucky here in Britain: there are still a lot of book stores and book festivals. If you go to a large city in the States, there used to be book stores on every corner, these days there are so few: Chicago only has one or two, can you imagine? The lack of book stores has made marketing books a real problem. So blogging isn’t killing the book, it’s that the loss of book stores makes it very hard to sell books in the traditional way. We are at an in-between period in publishing, probably in travel too: not knowing what the next thing is going to be.
JC: Although you observe in Last Train on the unlikely similarity between communities around the world, comparing the problems of Windhoek, the Namibian capital, with the problems of Aids and education to New Jersey in the States.
PT: One of the salient facts of travel is there are a lot of places in the world that resemble your own country. Zimbabwe resembles many parts of South Carolina: they are both faced with high HIV rates, high mortality rates; access to healthcare is poor, access to education is poor. Newark, New Jersey and Windhoek, Namibia have the same problems. That wasn’t the case before. It makes travel a humbling experience, when you go and see a reflection of your own circumstances.
JC: Did you find what you expected on your journey from Cape Town to Angola? Often we travel with expectations we are seeking to fulfil.
PT: The old form of travel is going into the unknown, and to a large extent that’s what I was doing on this trip. My expectation was that I wouldn’t get seriously hurt, other than that I didn’t know what to expect. I had no idea that Namibia was so thinly populated – just 2 million people – I couldn’t take in the size of the country. Angola just seemed to be a big unknown place. It was much more difficult to travel there than I thought it would be: the roads are very bad, officialdom very hostile, it’s xenophobic. They’ve had a bad time, very traumatic – 27 years of war and it’s still full of landmines – but they have a tonne of money: 2m barrels of oil a day being pumped. What have they done with that money? A lot of it’s being stolen obviously, they’re certainly not building roads with it.
JC: At the start of Dark Star Safari and throughout Last Train to Zona Verde, you talk about death and the idea of mortality. Did this last trip feel like your last?
PT: No, though it may be my last book about Africa: I can’t imagine writing anything new, anything better. Death is unfortunately always part of the entourage: three people I met on this trip died, two of them violently. When that happens you think ‘the thunderbolt is getting closer and closer, and I don’t want the next one to be me’. When you’re young you don’t think about these things, when you get older you think: ‘am I doing what I love, also am I taking a needless risk?’
JC: As you say, you’re getting older. Did you find that Africa is no country for old men?
PT: There are no old men in Africa: life expectancy for men in most African countries is in their 30s, so I am older than most. I feel younger than most of the people I meet though, and when you’re older you get more patient. No, it’s more that I feel a sense of repetition, I don’t want to keep writing about the same thing: big horrible cities, bad roads, no healthcare ... ain’t it awful. That’s not my line at all, that’s someone else’s. I first saw Africa in 1963, 50 years ago: that was my first version of the wider world, the big world. I want to keep looking at it, to see how it changes.
JC: Do you see yourself as a witness?
PT: Yes, that’s exactly how I see myself: I’m a witness to what’s happening and in a small way contributing my vision of things. The earliest people on Earth travelled, they came back and they said: ‘this is what I saw, this amazing thing.’ That’s what a good traveller is: someone taking an experience home and telling people about it.
The Last Train to Zona Verde: Overland from Cape Town to Angola by Paul Theroux (Hamish Hamilton, £20)
Cover image of Paul Theroux by William Furniss.