Monday, May 20, 2013
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
Not too long ago, a rather cynical person said to me that, in New Zealand, film-making is the new pottery – the thing that artily-inclined people enter into, but usually in a cottage industry sort of way. Most aspiring film-makers get no further than the short films that are perhaps seen in a few festivals (if they are lucky) before being archived. It is only the very rare film-school graduate who makes an ongoing career in film in any genuinely creative way.
Now there are some even more cynical people who would say similar things about the Creative Writing industry. Never before have there been so many institutions that teach Creative Writing, and yet it is only the rare graduate of them who makes an ongoing career in literature. This can raise all sorts of questions about both the utility and value of such courses. Indeed, there are some Illustrious Elder Literary Figures who have opined that all aspiring writers really need to do is to read widely, learn how the best writers achieve their effects, and then get on with it, the way writers in the past did. Creative Writing courses, they imply, are a commercial con giving false hope to the untalented.
Stephanie Johnson has the right to write a novel about Creative Writing. Not only is she an accomplished novelist, but she is also a teacher of Creative Writing and has another stake in the culture industry as co-founder of a writers’ and readers’ festival. The Writing Class is an insider’s view of the whole phenomenon.
Ageing Creative Writing tutor Merle Carbury was once a promising novelist, but her writing has for years taken a back seat to her teaching. She supports a chronically-depressed husband Brendan, who was once a documentary film-maker but now plods about the house in his pyjamas, smoking and idling. They have a mysterious German lodger Jurgen, with whose mysterious situation we are tantalised. At work, Merle’s fellow tutor is the younger Gareth, who wrote a novel once but hasn’t been able to write anything since. Intentional or not, there seems to be at least the suggestion in The Writing Class that tutoring Creative Writing isn’t necessarily healthy for the creative energy of the tutors. They have to give so much of themselves to assessing and offering advice on their students’ efforts. A sense of weariness hangs over the enterprise.
The novel plays out in the last term of a writing course’s year, in which Merle’s students are preparing final drafts of the works they intend to submit for assessment. Some are thinking (too optimistically in most cases) about finding publishers. They are a varied bunch – the roughneck male writer; the out-and-open lesbian; the former nun; the Chinese woman writing a fictionalised life of her grandmother; the Indian man going for a generational saga; the sweetie writing a children’s book; the fake Rastafarian. More women than men, of course, but then that is the way of writing courses (and of literary festivals). Egos have to be massaged by the tutors, and criticisms muted so as not to discourage the students. Students also have to be encouraged to read their work out loud to an audience, in an environment where new books are publicised by readings at writers’ festivals. The big emotional story, intertwined with Merle’s sage observations, involves Jacinta, a highly-strung and wealthily-married student, and her affair with the rumpled tutor Gareth.
In presenting what the novel is about like this, I am in a way falsifying it. The Writing Class is very self-referencing, with chapter headings drawing our attention to the fact that it too is a product of the Creative Writing process. (“Ways of Beginning”, “To Be Going on With”, “The Writer’s Life” etc.). This stylistic alienation effect is at one with the novel’s reference (on page 137) to Stephanie Johnson herself; and with the reminders that the main character’s surname, Carbury, comes from an Anthony Trollope novel.
It all opens with a stunning morning panorama of a New Zealand city waking up. (It could be more than one city, but my brain converted it into Auckland.) “What a charmingly old-fashioned way to set the scene,” I immediately thought. But then I saw how Stephanie Johnson was gently teasing us, for the chapter that follows has Merle conducting a class on how to write arresting openings. She reflects on how few of her charges actually read anything. When she presents them with opening paragraphs from well-known novels, to show how it can be done (E.M.Forster, Carson McCullers, Elias Canetti…. and Rosie Scott) she can sense how irritated they are that they have to read this old stuff when they’d rather be flicking around with their I-pads or skimming the ‘net. And she reflects on departmental rivalries. And on how universities are downsizing humanities and how people in the older English departments hardly ever read anything new because they want to wait until books are part of the “canon”.
By this stage, we are alert to how the novelist sets things up and how she is deliberately drawing our attention to artifice. The opening is followed by articulated reflections on openings and indeed by other chapters that could equally validly be openings. We are being asked to scrutinise this story as a narrative construct, right up to discussions on how it should all end.
This does not make The Writing Class a cold intellectual enterprise, however. It has an in-built suspense (how are the students’ writings going to turn out?) and some in-built mystery (what is that German lodger’s secret and what exactly is his muted relationship with Merle?) and a fine and precise way in presenting characters. It also has its scenes of feverish emotion in the Jacinta-Gareth story. But even here, we are forced to consider style. Both when seen from Jacinta’s viewpoint and when seen from Gareth’s viewpoint, their adulterous coupling is close to overwrought romantic writing – but then this is the point isn’t it? After all, he’s a tutor in Creative Writing and she’s a student of Creative Writing; so don’t they both have a tendency to over-dramatize and create fiction about themselves and others? And then there’s that moment where Jacinta, having just bonked ecstatically, sits down and momentarily considers how she can make use of this experience in her writing. Writers as self-conscious parasites on reality, maybe?
What I enjoyed most in this novel were its comments on literature, academe and the writing process. I cannot refrain from quoting some.
When Merle speaks to her students, she thinks with regret of the world before there were writing courses:
“ ‘Before the invention of writing courses, the relationship between emerging writers and established writers was more organic – they would seek one another out and form relationships outside institutions.’ Merle feels nostalgic for those days. Faces of beloved older writer friends float through her mind, some passed on to whatever literary hell or heaven dead-writers may occupy. A lump rises in her throat, which has to be swallowed down before she can return calmly to the subject at hand.” (Pg.81)
Sometimes Merle reveals harsh and bitter truths about her work:
“As she stands before the class, Merle reflects on how in our times, writers seem more than ever to flock together. Friendships are forged in courses, more numerous and inclusive than those formed in the old salons of Europe. The schooled are taught to form ‘writers’ groups’ which will endure beyond the course calendar. The unschooled, especially those whose careers pre-date the creation of Creative Writing degrees and courses, will form alliances easy and not so easy at proliferating writers’ festivals around the world. Merle remembers her first writer friend Jay, a man twenty years her senior, who introduced himself after her long-ago debut. She remembers his sensitive, anxious face, and she remembers his kindness and guidance through what proved to be a minefield of petty jealousies. Now first novels by young women are published almost hourly. Then it was rare. Now it is more important to have ‘done a course’ than to have published. The deception is universal and complete: everyone can write, and if they can’t they can be taught. And very often they’re taught by people who have PhDs in Creative Writing and virtually no publishing record.” (p.156)
Merle is aware that her students can be over-sensitive, and have to be treated with kid gloves:
“….she is mentoring Szu-Wen, who has a doctorate in bio-chemical engineering and is working full-time for a huge multinational agricultural conglomerate. The student has never received anything less than an A+ in her entire academic career, but the novel lacks suspense and colour, and Merle lacks the courage to tell her so. How can she? Szu-Wen is so clever, sweet and earnest, and she paid her fees on the understanding that she would be taught to write, that anyone can be taught to write.” (pp.87-88)
In an age where students are too reliant on their electronic gadgets, Merle also gives some sage advice against instant feedback when she tells her class:
“Before a person can truly say she is a writer, she must have readers. It’s a very necessary equation. All writers long for a response from their readers – a positive one! – but it’s a kind of luxury. At least, traditionally it has been. We waited first to be published and then for reviews to appear in the media. Now, if you put things up on the net, you can have an almost instant response from strangers. I think this is addictive. I think it’s important to let things settle. It’s common to hear writers talk about how they wrote a novel or short story and put it away ‘in the bottom drawer’. Some time later, when the manuscript is retrieved, the writer has an epiphany about how to improve and enrich it. This process of enrichment is endangered by instant publishing and I think in time we will draw away from it. Most intelligent readers want to read intelligent, multi-layered, mature writing, not something cooked up out of a desire for instant feedback.” (p.219)
I am not, however, falling into the trap of seeing Merle as the author’s mouthpiece, although I am sure that much of what Merle says comes from Stephanie Johnson’s working experience. And I do note that other characters also make rueful comments that are credible social observation. Here is the tutor Gareth just before he plunges into an affair with the student Jacinta:
“Gareth does not make a habit of sleeping with his students. He is firmly aware of his era. That sort of behaviour is regarded as anachronistic by young academics such as himself. Long gone are the times when professors and tutors openly looked over each fresh intake for prospective sex. There are too many women on staff now, and besides, the students are too aware of their rights and likely to make a complaint of harassment. They complain anyway, just for professional failure to recognise their genius…” (Pg.54)
And here is Jacinta reflecting on the decline in the mystique of literature, as compared with her husband’s career as a surgeon:
“Once, a long time ago, novelists were regarded the same way, with awe. They were in possession of an instinctive arcane magic that enabled a long, multi-layered narrative to come together to form a vision of life more humane and glittering than the real thing. Now it is possible to learn how to do it at universities and community colleges all over the world….” (p.135)
I could quote more, but that will do.
This is an urbane and accessible novel, engaging and often ironically funny. In isolation, some passages could be taken as clinching arguments against Creative Writing courses; but whether that was Stephanie Johnson’s purpose is more than I can guess.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
It is sometimes the fortune of quite prolific writers to be remembered for just one book. This has certainly been the fate of Edmund Gosse (1849-1928). He produced many volumes of poetry, but they are all now forgotten. None of his poetry is re-published or appears in anthologies; and having never sighted any of it, I’m in no position to pass judgement on it. He also wrote official biographies of a few people (including his father) and a mountain of literary criticism. But as is the way with literary criticism, most of this has now been superseded and is consulted only by Lit Crit specialists. I do know that in his last years, there were much younger writers (such as Aldous Huxley) who regarded him as a pompous old bore who was too inclined to lord it over his youngers and betters, and to see himself as the Grand Cham of the whole London literary scene.
Gosse was happily married and had three children, but he was homosexual by inclination, a fact which he admitted to a few friends (like the similarly inclined John Addington Symonds) only when he was in middle age. This may have inflected the attitudes of some younger writers towards him.
But there is one book by Gosse, and one book only, which has continued to be a minor classic and has rarely been out of print over the last century. This is Father and Son, and my recent re-reading of it reminds me of how good it is.
Subtitled “A Study of Two Temperaments”, it is Gosse’s autobiographical account of his relationship, in childhood and adolescence, with his father Philip Gosse. The account ends when young Gosse is 17 or 18 years old. It is often hailed as an early attempt at psychological autobiography and it is frequently cited by cultural historians when they wish to say negative things about the domestic power of Victorian fathers.
Edmund Gosse was an only child. His father was 38 and his mother 42 when he was born; and his mother died when he was about 6 or 7. Philip Gosse was a scientist – a marine biologist and the author of respected textbooks. But he was a man of limited and literalist Christian views, even by the standards of the Victorian age. Gosse Senior was a Plymouth Brethren with exclusivist beliefs about the salvation of his own sect (the only group of Christians to interpret the Bible correctly, apparently) and the impending damnation of everybody else. He hoped to train his son in the same views, but Father and Son records the strain and breakdown of their relationship as Edmund developed an aesthetic sense of his own.
Philip Gosse hoped to rout Charles Darwin’s newly-published notions of Evolution by Natural Selection. He researched and wrote a book called Omphalos, which was meant to harmonise all observable natural phenomena with a literalist interpretation of Genesis. He was bitterly disappointed, however, when even fellow Christians like Charles Kingsley failed to back him up. (Father and Son has an amusing vignette of Philip Gosse leaving Kingsley waiting in the garden when he came to call, as Philip refused to interrupt the Bible class he was conducting). It is worth reading the passages about this as a salutary reminder that, in historical fact, and despite later exaggerations by some secularist propagandists, many nineteenth century Christians had little difficulty in reconciling the theory of evolution with their Christian faith.
Poor old Philip Gosse found himself estranged from most Christian intellectuals as well as from the scientific community. So Gosse, father and son, settled in rural Devon, where Philip continued his sea-shore research and conducted Plymouth Brethren services in the local Brethren “Room”. And Edmund, baptised by total immersion at the uncustomarily young age of 10, was groomed to be a “saint”. With his father, he had to make local calls of charity (which he hated) and spend the whole Sabbath reading only the Bible. A Miss Marks almost married his widower father, but she left in a huff when he delayed proposing to her. Philip Gosse eventually married a Miss Wilkes, whom young Edmund liked for her gentle and tolerant nature – but it was his father who made the rules and dominated the household.
There are many arresting anecdotes in Father and Son. One of the best-known (partly because – with acknowledgement – it was re-hashed by the Australian Peter Carey in his 1988 Booker Prize-winning novel Oscar and Lucinda) concerns Philip Gosse’s rage when he discovered that two house-maids had been celebrating the “popish” feast of Christmas. He took the plum pudding they had prepared and buried it in the garden. There was also Philip’s rage and disappointment at those who were ardent in the Plymouth Brethren faith only for a short time before falling away. And there is the tale of the crazy woman who briefly abducted the boy Edmund from his conventicle. And the description of Mrs Paget, wife of a retired Baptist minister, who put fear into Philip Gosse by being able to argue better from Scripture than he could.
But the real subject is always Edmund’s growing-away from his father. There was that epiphany in childhood when he realized his father didn’t know everything. There was his wilful wickedness as a child when he tested God by praying to a stool to see if God would punish him. There was his adolescent discovery of Shakespeare and of Greek art at the boarding school he was sent to (which was not as narrowly Christian as his father thought it would be). Consequently there was the adolescent Edmund’s horror when he heard of the half-crazy Brethren girl Susan Flood, who tried to smash all the plaster casts of Greek statuary on display as the Crystal Palace as she believed they were malign heathen idols.
Fittingly, the main part of the book ends with the adolescent Edmund, on a calm and beautiful evening, praying for Jesus to take him… and when Jesus doesn’t take him, he realizes definitively that his ways will never be his father’s.
Father and Son was written when Edmund Gosse was nearly 60 and his father long dead. The chief tension in the book is between Edmund’s renunciation of his upbringing, and yet his continuing affection for his father, who was clearly no fool. From a safe distance of time, the younger Gosse can see that the older Gosse was attempting to do his best by his lights, and that he did indeed impart to him much interesting information about the natural world. Hence the tone is more often wryly humorous and ironical, rather than outraged or horrified. When Edmund Gosse does directly condemn his narrow religious upbringing, it sounds like editorialising.
Oddly, my reaction was that if one could remove the religious aspect from it, much of Edmund’s rural childhood would sound idyllic – his walking on the seashore; his absorption in producing watercolours of marine life, as he was encouraged to do by his father. The style is beautifully clear and readable, one notable aspect being Gosse’s determination to stick to the point of his relationship with his father. Hence this is not a complete autobiography of his first 18 years and much (including, one assumes, sexual urges) is not part of the record. Of his boarding school years, for example, we hear nothing except that the school eventually didn’t appeal to his father; and that young Edmund once naughtily locked an usher into the school’s cellar.
Only occasionally, Gosse’s style can become pretentious. In Chapter 5 he mentions “an inspissated gloom” and in Chapter 9 he talks of “the mildest and most febrifugal story-book” (Look ‘em up, folks.). Usually he is clarity itself, flavoured with an urbane irony, as in his introductory words in Chapter 1:
“This is the study of… a state of soul once not uncommon in Protestant Europe, of which my parents were perhaps the latest consistent exemplars among people of light and leading.”
He comes up with some delightful aphorisms, as when describing his stepmother in Chapter 10: “She was never a tower of strength to me, but at least she was always a lodge in my garden of cucumbers.”
In Chapter 12, he says when he was at school:
“I suppose that my queer reputation for sanctity, half dreadful, half ridiculous, surrounded me with a non-conducting atmosphere… A state in which conversation exists not, is for me an air too empty of oxygen for my lungs to breathe it.”
One of the best passages of extended irony (too long for me to quote here) is in Chapter 4, where (though “I have no longer the slightest wish myself to denounce the Roman communion”), he reflects on the extreme anti-Catholic bigotry in which he was raised, which left him having nightmares about the Scarlet Woman of Babylon, the Beast 666 and so on.
And finally, to set the nerves rattling, there is the account in his Epilogue of the moment when he at last stood up to his father, who had the habit of cross-examining his adolescent religious conscience:
“My father had once more put to me the customary interrogatory. Was I ‘walking closely with God’? Was my sense of the efficacy of the Atonement clear and sound? Had the Holy Scriptures still their full authority with me? My replies on this occasion were violent and hysterical. I have no clear recollection what it was that I said – I desire not to recall the whimpering sentences in which I begged to be let alone, in which I demanded the right to think for myself, in which I repudiated the idea that my father was responsible to God for my secret thoughts and my most intimate convictions.”
Freud, deluded man, believed that each man, in his innermost core, really wanted to kill his father. This is plainly nonsense, and yet there is a point where every young man, if he is going to grow up at all, has to separate himself from his father. Rarely has such separation been expressed with such force, and such pathos, as in Gosse’s account.
It remains only to say that modern biographers (including Anne Thwaite) have made a strong case for the idea that Edmund Gosse grossly exaggerated the tyranny of Philip, who was apparently a gentler soul than his son made out. Perhaps it was very much the way Samuel Butler caricatured his clergyman father in his fiction. I can believe this, but I still see Father and Son as a classic of subjective portraiture.
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
I recently wrote for Metro magazine a review of William Dalrymple’s The Return of a King. It’s a history of Britain’s disastrous war in Afghanistan in 1839-42, in which the author goes out of his way to point up parallels with coalition forces’ current tribulations in the same country. The war ended in humiliating defeat for Britain.
The foolish and ill-advised man who set this disaster in motion was the British Governor-General of India (this was in the days before they had a Viceroy), Lord Auckland. I noted that New Zealand’s largest city is named after this dubious character, who was also responsible for the war that imposed opium on China; and that his statue – no longer wanted in India where it originally stood – now stands outside the Auckland city administration building.
I made the flippant, and deliberately provocative, suggestion that, given the man’s appalling record, it might be a good thing to get rid of it.
My comments drew a dissenting, but courteous, response from one reader and we had a polite exchange of e-mails about the matter. His point was that to remove the statue would be to deprive people of information about their city’s history and the person after whom it was named. I readily concur with this objection, but I must admit that it leads me to consider a related matter.
I am sometimes annoyed by the thought that so many of our post-colonial cities and towns are named after people who reflect only a defunct imperial version of history. Here is New Zealand’s largest city named after an imperialist nincompoop. Glaring at each other across the Cook Strait are cities named after an Anglo-Irish general and an English admiral (Wellington and Nelson). Further inland you have a province named after another English general and a city named after one of his victories (Marlborough and Blenheim). I suppose it’s okay that some parts of the country are named after their European “discoverers” (Tasman, Cook, Hawkes Bay, Young Nick’s Head, Taylor’s Mistake, the Mackenzie Country etc etc.). But it really does irk me that nomenclature swamps our identity in an English view of the world, dating from the days when red on the map meant the British Empire.
Or does it? If you’re blissfully ignorant of history, then it doesn’t matter. And probably not one Aucklander in a thousand would know who their city was named after and how dismal his record was.
If, like me, you find these Anglo-imperialist names demeaning, there’s also the matter of what we would replace them, with should we choose to do so.
The re-naming of cities and other geographical features is a fraught matter. Often the name that is chosen to replace a seemingly inappropriate one later, in itself, becomes embarrassing. So Leningrad goes back to being St Petersburg and there’s no longer a Stalingrad on the map and Americans decided that maybe it was better to call Cape Kennedy Cape Canaveral once again. Personally I think it’s only a matter of time before Ho Chi Minh City reverts to being Saigon – which is what, apparently, most of its inhabitants still call it. There are name changes that have become permanent. Byzantium becomes Constantinople becomes Istanbul. New Amsterdam becomes New York. But if a name comes to seem inappropriate, it is usually hard to find a replacement that will satisfy everyone. And will your replacement outlast passing fashion?
In New Zealand, there’s always the siren call of those who would like every town and city and geographical feature to given a Maori name – the logical extension of the impulse that obliterated Mt Egmont from the map. Presumably such people would like Auckland to be called exclusively Tamaki Makaurau. But I would object to this for a variety of reasons. Not only would this traditional name be in the ancestral language of only 11% of the population (and the functional everyday language of much fewer than that); but it would also fail to recognize the nature of the city that simply wasn’t there when the area was last universally called Tamaki Makaurau. Auckland is overwhelmingly an English-speaking city even if it includes far more ethnicities than any other New Zealand centre. There never was a city that was called Tamaki Makaurau, and to create one would be to suggest that it was predominantly a Maori city.
So how would we re-name Auckland? Would we name it after some illustrious New Zealander? No. I couldn’t bear it if somebody wanted to call it Hillary City or some such. Indeed, though there are a Greytown and a Seddon on the map, the notion of calling a city after a national figure of renown really goes against the kiwi grain.
So, with a wistful sigh, I have to conclude it’s probably best to leave Auckland as Auckland. I console myself with the thought that the city is now more illustrious than the foolish, incompetent man after whom it happens to be named. And so long as people like me don’t go around mentioning the fact, it’s not too likely that many people will remember the man anyway.
Monday, May 13, 2013
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
What is the opposite of “mellowed”? “Acerbicised” perhaps? I wish there were such a word in the English language, as it would describe precisely the author of The Last Train to Zona Verde. He is more embittered and disillusioned than ever, and probably with very good reason. Paul Theroux is now 72 years old and quite different from the 30-ish chap who wrote The Great Railway Bazaar and established himself as an important travel writer all those years ago. As several indications in the text suggest, the journey he recounts in The Last Train to Zona Verde may well be his last. He even winds up saying he is no longer particularly enamoured of train journeys, which have often been his trademark.
Let’s get our geographical bearings. A bit over a decade ago, Theroux took a long journey down the east side of Africa, beginning in Cairo and ending in Cape Town. It became his 2002 travel book Dark Star Safari. In 2011, aged 70, he set out on an overland journey, where he meant to travel up the west side of Africa, starting in Cape Town and, he hoped, going on to Timbuktu. But he never completed the journey. Instead, having begun in South Africa and made it through Namibia (formerly “South-West Africa”) with a side-trip to Botswana, he decided to abandon his trip in Angola, which he found to be Hell on Earth. So the book is subtitled “Overland from Cape Town to Angola” and it ends with a 20-page reflection called “What Am I Doing Here?” in which he questions the whole rationale for travel books and heavily suggests that he will retire back to America for good. Indeed in some countries the book is being released with the more emphatic subtitle “My Ultimate African Safari”.
For the record, “zona verde” is simply Portuguese for “the green belt” and is used by Angolans to mean something like “the bush”, after whose simplicities Theroux hankers. But he is fully aware that such hankerings are mainly romantic delusions.
This notion is expressed in the very opening pages of The Last Train to Zona Verde. Theroux pictures himself walking with the Ju/’hoansi (“Bushmen”) people of the Kalahari as they hunt, and contrasting their simple subsistence way of life with the fact that at that very moment, in Europe and America, banks are crashing, capitalism is crumbling and money is being rendered worthless. So we appear to be building up to a dithyramb on the superiority of the primitive, earthy life. At which point Theroux whips the rug from under us by reminding us that his momentary reverie was pure delusion, for virtually no Ju/’hoansi now live the way he describes them, and those who do are unhappy employees of the tourism industry who are made to act out a “traditional” way of life for foreigners’ cameras. Most “Bushmen” want to join the modern economy and end up living in urban slums.
The book thenceforth sets itself against tourism-inspired romanticism.
Theroux visits post-apartheid South Africa’s squatter camps. He applauds the real self-help he sees there, and the inhabitants’ initiatives for education. But, in spite of the optimism, he is aware that physically, the old apartheid-era townships were better maintained. The new squatter settlements are more squalid than the old workers’ quarters were. In one slum called Lwandle:
“Former migrant labour hostels had been converted into dwellings for families, but they were just as crowded, dirty and unheated. Small children, ragged and barefoot, chased each other on a chilly evening, running past a wall with a painting of Steve Biko, killed by police during the apartheid era, one of the martyrs of the freedom struggle. Not far from where we were talking, a woman was doing her laundry, slapping at wet clothes in a small public sink fixed to a standpipe by the dirt road…. The museum at Lwandle had been more successful than the cultural committee at Lwandle might have intended, since the whole of the township seemed to have been preserved as a grubby reminder of the bad old days persisting into the present. The only difference was that instead of Lwandle serving as a camp for overworked men, it was now a camp of unemployed families, scraping by on handouts and menial labour.” (pp.48-49)
In many ways, the new South Africa is a frightening place (32,000 homicides and 70,000 rapes annually), but Theroux is not engaged in any cheap post-colonial drooling. Instead, he is affronted that the South African government, like the governments of most of Africa, is so self-serving, corrupt, faction-ridden and largely unconcerned for the majority of its citizens. He writes:
“Many of the South Africans I’d met wanted to be reassured. ‘How are we doing?’ they’d asked, but obliquely. How did South Africa compare to the country I’d seen on my trip ten years before and written about in Dark Star Safari? I could honestly say that it was brighter and better, more confident and prosperous, though none of it was due to any political initiative. The South African people had made the difference, and would continue to do so, no thanks to a government that embarrassed and insulted them with lavish personal spending, selfishness, corruption, outrageous pronouncements, hollow promises and blatant lies.” (Pg.66)
The opening sections of this book are saturated with a sense of guilt as Theroux (a.) realizes that he is just another slum tourist, like so many others who come to gawk; and (b.) understands more acutely how privileged and cossetted his own life is between his bouts of roughing it. Occasionally he refers to himself and to other travellers as “romantic voyeurs”. He also knows how easy it is to succumb to the tourists’ version of Africa. He enjoys the safe and friendly hotel in urban South Africa before he begins to see the slums and the hinterland. He realizes that much of the apparent modernity and cleanliness is a mere façade built over massive human misery.
This sense is stronger when he comes to travel through Namibia, which was, long ago, a German colony. The town of Windhoek, dominated by Europeans, seems so clean and orderly and civilised in a colonial way – a place where you can buy hygienically prepared food and walk the streets safely. But again it is mere façade, for outside the old town are the larger townships where the great majority of (African) Namibians live, and the townships are as squalid as possible. And what is true of Namibia is doubly true of Angola, where there is not only routine poverty and squalor but also a huge culture of bribery and violence among police and government officials. Far from having a few respectable towns as façades, Angola has only the isolated and security-guarded mansions of the very rich who rake in the wealth that no Angolan government would think of sharing with the general population. As for Angola’s capital Luanda, it is a mountain of filth, which doesn’t have even the superficial charm of Windhoek.
None of this is meant to incite nostalgia for an old imperialist Africa. Theroux is unsparing in his accounts of the old German regime in Namibia, which practised genocide; and the old Portuguese regime in Angola, which enslaved Africans and kept them illiterate. Even so, over bumpy, pot-holed roads with unreliable drivers, it’s a chastening and unhappy journey, but doubtless a truthful one.
There are many consistent themes in this book. One is Theroux’s detestation of the tourist version of Africa, meaning wealthy Westerners going on “safari” far from the everyday realities that most Africans endure. For such tourists, the wildlife is more important than the human beings. When, in Namibia, he crosses the “Vet Fence” that protects farms from roving beasts, he finds neglected and impoverished tribes. “The Ju/’hoansi lost their land in the cause of nature conservation, and expanding game reserves where elephants… were killed by wealthy foreigners” says Theroux, endorsing ethnologist Robert Gordon’s comment that “tourism robs the people of their dignity, exploits and suppresses them, and leaves them manipulated and unprepared for new ways of life.” (p.156). “Death by tourism” is a term Theroux sometimes uses. Clearly, then, he is very “conflicted” in the chapter where he is guest at a millionaires-only tourist camp where the wealthy ride elephants and kid themselves that they have seen raw nature. He likes the food and hospitality he is shown, but then hates himself for being part of a wider exploitation.
Another major theme is Theroux’s intense suspicion of foreign aid schemes, a suspicion he has already expressed in some of his earlier books. He notes:
“Anyone who has spent even a short time in a Third World country has seen this waste of money and the futility of a great deal of foreign aid. Africa is the happy hunting ground of donors, also of people seeking funds. The classic African failed state is composed of a busy capital city where politicians on large salaries hold court and drive big cars; dense and hopeless slums surrounding the capital; and the great empty hinterland, ignored by the government and more or less managed by foreign charities, which in many instances are big businesses run by highly paid executives.” (p.192)
This theme reaches a crescendo in the chapters on Angola, where Theroux notes that billions of dollars of annual revenue (from minerals) are routinely stolen by a typically kleptocratic government, while the populace at large starves. Foreign aid simply allows dictators and titled thieves to share nothing and still expect handouts. Theoretically, Angola should be one of the wealthiest nations on the continent. In reality, its people are among the most degraded. As for new sources of foreign “aid”, they are as destructive as the old. Theroux opines (p.265) that increased Chinese involvement in Africa is strictly on Chinese terms – in other words the Chinese are the new wave of exploiters.
And along with the pitfalls of tourism and foreign aid, Theroux hits hard at those inane Western “celebrities” (usually movie stars or rock stars) who say widely-publicised and inaccurate things about Africa, usually in the cause of promoting themselves as humanitarians. While in South Africa, he notes the sinister influence of the youngish ANC defector Julius Malema, who greatly admires Robert Mugabe and wishes to follow Zimbabwe’s disastrous policy of seizing all white-owned farms (and thus reducing the country to chronic famine). Malema is regarded with horror by most South Africans (black and white) as he incites rallies of young people to sing songs about killing all white farmers. At which point Theroux notes:
“But wait: one voice was raised in defence of Julius Malema, fat and sassy in his canary-yellow T-shirt, his fist raised shouting ‘Shoot the Boer – shoot, shoot.’ This supporting voice was the confident brogue of the Irish singer Paul Hewson, known to the world as the ubiquitous meddler Bono, the frontman of U2. He loved the song. The multimillionaire rocker, on his band’s ‘360-Degree Tour’ in South Africa in 2011, had squinted through his expensive sunglasses, tipped his cowboy hat in respect, and asserted that ‘Shoot the Boer’ had fondly put him in mind of the protest songs sung by the Irish Republican Army….” (p.65)
The singing dimwit who couldn’t see that he was supporting mass murder is, in Theroux’s version, at one with the likes of Madonna ostentatiously adopting African children.
Yet, while despising the tourists and publicity hounds, Theroux also spends much time kicking away the ladder upon which he himself is standing. The Last Train to Zona Verde is replete with stories on the shortcomings of travel-writers, and how easy it is to fake a travel book without much real knowledge of the lands being described. Theroux refers to the forgotten novelist Frederic Prokosch’s faked 1935 novel of Asia The Asiatics, which was written entirely in America when the author knew Asia only from other peoples’ travel books. Theroux comments:
“The Asiatics was much admired by the traveller Bruce Chatwin, who habitually fictionalised his travel writings, punching up mild episodes and giving them drama, turning a few days in a place into a long and knowledgeable residence.” (p.73)
Of Laurens van der Post, Theroux says his first book “made a crepuscular and existential narrative out of a fairly conventional few months of bushwhacking with a team of hearties… I realized from that book and a few others that he was something of a mythomaniac.” He goes on to describe van der Post as a “posturing fantasist and fake mystic in the field.” (pp.137-138)
Other travel writers are similarly rebuked although, in fairness, Theroux is equally ready to praise those books that are genuinely informative about a country. Generally they are books written by real ethnologists, geographers and political commentators – and therefore less likely to become bestsellers like the popular and meretricious fantasies of a Chatwin.
Finally, as he rationalises his own decision not to finish his planned journey, Theroux tells us:
“It takes a certain specialist’s dedication to travel in squalid cities and fetid slums, among the utterly dependent poor, who have lost nearly all their traditions and most of their habitat. You need first of all the skill and the temperament of a proctologist. Such a person, deft in rectal exams, is as essential to medicine as any other specialist, yet it is only the resolute few who opt to examine the condition of the human body by staring solemnly…. up its fundament and trawling through its intestines, making the grand colonic tour. Some travel has its parallels, and some travellers might fit the description as rectal specialists of topography, joylessly wandering the guts and entrails of the earth and reporting on their decrepitude. I am not one of them.” (pp.341-342)
In short, says Theroux in this overlong image, he doesn’t want to be a tourist but he is tired of looking up the arsehole of humanity.
Yes, this could well be his last travel book.