The Last Train to Zone Verde – Paul Theroux

In front of several were stalls selling blackened sheep heads. “We call them smileys.” Archie explained that when the severed head was thrown on the hot grill, “the lips shrivel up in a smile.” The locals ate them with “train smash,” he went on, and laughed. “Tomato sauce.”

Still grouchy, picking at the locals, puzzled by voyeur tourism in the slums and townships of Cape Town, disdainful of safari tourism, while taking part in one, critical of staged authenticity of tribal life while witnessing it first hand, the Last Train is paradoxical all the way through, but still manages to be quintessentially Theroux. Except, except that this time he is worn down. Kicking off in Cape Town, effectively the edge of the world, revisiting some of the places he finished in dark star safari, the plan was to head up to Timbuktu, but this time the continent beat the traveller, whose connection with it runs deep.

Theroux says in the book, and has said in interview that he is not an African pessimist, but this book, well, you would not believe it while you read. While Theroux’s other travel books seem like they were written while he was stuffed into a standard class seat traversing endless terrain with the jolt and rattle and stifled initimacy of train travel at it’s most basic, the Last Train is different. It feels as though he rewrote it when he got back, that he felt that it was his last throw of the dice. His intentions are the same as always, but this time the fear creeps in, not enough to stop him, but enough to seep onto the page. While South Africa passes by in a checkberoard of township and luxury day trips, Namibia and Angola beat Theroux down, preying on his old age and ever growing sense of frailty. But even this isn’t enough to stop him, Africa wears him down, he clearly holds a lot of affection for the continent in general, and he is quick to point out the green shoots of hope in initiatives and projects when he sees them, but he is despondent at the archaic mess of everything around it, and the cloud of corruption that rests over the top. It makes interesting reading, particularly if you’ve read his previous travel books, where it seems your seated next to him peering at his notes over his shoulder. This time, the old man writes as much as the traveller, questions his judgement in continuing, stalked as he is by death throughout.

Eventually he calls it a day, reading interviews with him he says it’s not the end of his travel writing or his travelling in Africa, but it’s the end of his writing about his travels on this, the great continent which he has at least a few roots. Even if he decides to spend the rest of his days drinking Mai Tai’s in Hawaii, which I can’t really see happening, he has given us a wonderous view of the world, from dusty border crossings to vodka fuelled train journeys, and he will always be an inspiration to this part time traveller.

I was an older man of an alien race entering the country by the back door, treated with the casual abuse ¬†reserved for the contemptible souls who walked across the remote border. To anyone who breezed through the international airport on the red carpet and praised the country’s manners and modernity, I could say: You do not have the slightest idea.


Monsignor Quixote – Graham Greene

A vine is alive like a flower or a bird. It is not something made by man – man can only help it to live – or to die,’ he added with a deep melancholy, so that his face lost all expression. He had shut his face, as a man shuts a book which he finds he¬†doesn’t wish to read.

An well meaning and unexpected promotion sends the humble Monsignor Quixote on a collision course with his Bishop, and he takes leave and drives across Spain in his old car ‘Rocinate’ with his good friend the ex-mayor, his Sancho Panza. Greene cleverly plays in this, re-writing the Cervantes classic, but at the same time acknowledging it within the story, the referring to the original Quixote as the Monsignor’s ancestor throughout was a playful touch, particularly as it enrages the antagonistic Bishop.

As the Monsignor and the Communist ex-mayor road trip across Spain, protected almost in equal parts by Quixote’s innocence and naivety and the Panza’s more practical and worldly nous, they explore each other’s beliefs, gently probing and teasing, with the tacit understanding of the fundamental differences between their two ideologies. What draws them closer, apart from the endless supply of manchegan wine, is the doubts they both share in the infallibility of what they hold dear. Quixote suffers terribly, in the way that Greene’s protagonists seem to do, with his own inadequacies, both in the church, and in life, as his travels expand his horizons well beyond El Toboso. Later, when he aids the thief, it is almost with a bewildered, cheeky delight that he tells Sancho.

Despite the intimate conversations between the two friends, Monsignor Quixote is shot through with dry humour, the moment when Quixote discovers his steak is horsemeat is a brilliant example of the simple humour that Greene wields so effectively

He explained the situation in which he had found the bishop.
‘But the steak ..’ Teresa said.
‘What about the steak?’
‘You can’t give the Bishop horsemeat.’
‘My steak is horsemeat?’
‘It always has been. How can I give you beef with the money you allow me?’

There are still touching moments between Quixote and Sancho, as they grow their friendship by gently pushing back the boundaries of their faiths, until they have small patches of common ground, meanwhile the Bishop and Father Herrera lightly scheme in the background, impotently outraged at Quixote’s promotion to Monsignor.

Despite being hauled back to El Toboso, Quixote once again hits the road in Rocinate, with Sancho faithfully by his side, but his horizons are expanded too far, and the innate sense of what is right and just, and how the church should act and be treated is tested and he perhaps becomes the Monsignor he was all along.

As my Green collection grows I find I am loving the sheer readability of his novels, particularly the comedies, that produce genuine laugh’s, while at the same time containing poignant pictures of life. Yet, despite the surface simplicity, Greene always seem to paint a bright picture that delights and amuses.

‘Dreaming or delirium?’ Father Leopoldo wondered.
Sancho said, ‘I seem to remember …’
‘You have no right to burn my books, Excellency. The sword, I beg you, not death by pin stabs.’
There was a short period of silence, then, ‘A fart,’ Father Quixote said, ‘can be musical.’
‘I fear,’ Father Leopoldo whispered, ‘that he is in a worse state than the doctor told us.’