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Originally published Sunday, May 5, 2013 at 6:14 AM

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‘The Last Train to Zona Verde’: Paul Theroux’s African return

Paul Theroux’s “The Last Train to Zona Verde” chronicles the travel writer’s return to Africa, where he takes the temperature of the continent’s countries, guided by his sympathy for the underdog, his suspicion of do-gooding outsiders and his moral outrage at political

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari’

by Paul Theroux

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 368 pp., $27

Everything is under scrutiny in Paul Theroux’s latest travel book — not just the people, landscapes and sociopolitical realities of the countries he visits, but his own motivations for going where he goes.

After all, as he acknowledges, he’s “way past retirement age” (he recently turned 72) and perhaps should leave the task of inquisitive globe-hopping to “someone younger ... hungrier, stronger, more desperate, crazier.”

He has a point. “The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari,” covering his 2011 journey from Cape Town to Angola, takes him places most travelers half his age would avoid.

Why do it, then?

“I didn’t want to be told about this,” he writes, “nor did I wish to read about this at second hand. ... I wanted to be traveling in the middle of it.”

His readers can only be grateful.

Though Theroux wrote some highly lauded novels in the early 1970s, his first commercial success came in 1975 with “The Great Railway Bazaar,” his account of traveling by rail across Europe and Asia. As a traveler, he’s much less interested in taking in the sights than in taking the social temperature. He talks to everyone he meets, asks nosy questions and pushes for blunt honesty in the answers he gets.

After journeying through China in 1987, for instance, he came back with a book, “Riding the Iron Rooster,” that suggested something was amiss in the newly “westernized” China. Some critics called his account cranky. But the voices of discontent he heard on his travels led, 18 months later, to demonstrations that culminated in the bloodbath of Tiananmen Square.

“Last Train” finds him operating as he always has, roughing it where necessary, eager to talk to anyone who can tell him what it’s like to live there.

In Cape Town, which he last visited in 2001 (as recounted in his book “Dark Star Safari”), he looks for any progress made in transforming the city’s shantytowns into viable neighborhoods. He finds heartening developments. But his sense of Cape Town being a kind of open-air goldfish bowl — where the wealthy, on the slopes of Table Mountain, can stare down at the poverty-stricken “flats,” and the poor can stare up at the opulent slopes — still seems the city’s central truth.

In Namibia, he ventures into the countryside to see how far traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyles have survived. In the magical scene that opens the book, he accompanies villagers on a foraging expedition, then has to figure out if they’re merely re-enacting old customs for his sake.

It’s Angola, still recovering from 30 years of civil war, that’s Theroux’s holy grail — because it’s so unknown. Its hinterlands are scarcely frequented by travelers (everyone he meets warns him against going there). Its cities attract foreigners eager to exploit the country’s oil and mineral riches while having as little to do with its citizens as possible.

Theroux, throughout, is guided by his sympathy for the underdog, his fierce suspicion of do-gooding outsiders and his moral outrage at political and corporate power-abusers. But he’s always up for having his opinions tested. In Namibia, he concedes that outsiders are doing more to help rural tribes preserve their culture than anyone in the country’s government.

His own physical discomfort is obvious. But it lets him see sights he hasn’t imagined and could learn of in no other way. It’s only in Angola’s cities, where he realizes he’s running out of ways to describe urban squalor, that he starts thinking of packing it in.

This may be it for Theroux, as far as rigorous travel goes. Best to savor it, while waiting to see who, from the younger generation, is game for picking up where he’s left off.

Michael Upchurch is an arts reporter for The Seattle Times.

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