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.