Hamish Hamilton, £20; Serpent's Tail, £8.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

The Last Train to Zona Verde, By Paul Theroux
Tomorrow I'll be Twenty, By Alain Mabanckou, trans. Helen Stevenson

As a great traveller abandons hope in modern Africa, a voice from Congo refreshes the spirit

Paul Theroux never made it to the place he calls "the Congo". Disgusted by the "squalor and decrepitude" of "horror cities", he gives up his overland journey up the continent's west coast in Angola: for him, the epitome of a "futureless, dystopian, world-gone-wrong, Mad Max Africa". In what amounts to a great travel writer's professional suicide note, he claims that, to the north, "I knew what I would find: decaying cities, hungry crowds, predatory youths, people abandoned by their governments".

Well: this February, I went where Theroux feared to tread. In Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo and one of his unvisited hell-holes, I heard dozens of African writers, both Anglophone and Francophone, chew over the burdens and afflictions that Theroux details, with all his brutal frankness. But they safeguarded a virtue he had lost on wheezing buses along the dusty, potholed roads: hope.

I strolled through the "shantytown" of Bacongo, by the sea-wide river, in the company of a witty and subtle Angolan novelist - José Eduardo Agualusa. (Theroux wrongly dismisses Angolan literature as "humourless, self-righteous and provincial".) We tracked down a couple of the famous "Sapeurs" who defy the surrounding hardship with displays of designer-label peacock finery, and replied to the "bonsoirs" of well-mannered kids. There were lots of schools.

I owed the gift of Brazzaville to the versatile and charismatic Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou, prime mover behind the country's first arts and literature festival. If you choose to join Theroux's apocalyptic and despairing drive from Cape Town to Luanda, then turn for a respite to the clear-eyed warmth and charm of Mabanckou's semi-autobiographical novel about a childhood in Pointe-Noire - Congo's port. It will cleanse the palate, and refresh the spirit.

Africa's future matters too much for propaganda and special pleading. Congo-Brazzaville, the gods know, faces problems enough. Still, in the former French colony we could do what remains quite inconceivable across the vast river in the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo - first Belgium's abused treasure-chest, and now a mineral-hungry planet's. Shameless kleptocrats in power; the hypocrisy of foreign aid (Theroux's scorned "virtue industry"); the grotesque theft of resources by tiny elites in cahoots with Western - and now Chinese - corporations; the flight from village life into (Theroux again) "the blight of incomplete and misdirected modernity": these realities deserve no evasions or euphemisms. Michel, Mabanckou's sweet-natured and forever curious 10-year-old narrator, accepts almost as a fact of nature that "the finance minister is someone who steals the country's money".

Theroux himself argues that "Colonialism oppressed and subverted Africans and remade them as scavengers, pleaders, and servants" - the literary pioneers of négritude said as much almost a century ago - and that "colonial-mimicry", post-independence, has just repeated that pattern.

However, The Last Train to Zona Verde - a "symmetrical" west-coast journey to match his east-coast Dark Star Safari (2002) - ends up by doing a huge favour to the uniformed local embezzlers, the besuited foreign plunderers and the "parachuting pop stars" (Bono and Madonna take a merited pasting). They may dismiss its more justifiable outbursts of indignation as merely a bitter old man's pain.

Theroux's "valedictory trip", his farewell to a genre of rough travel that once promised "bliss", treats the urban Africa he loathes as the outward sign of an inner disillusion. Feeling ancient (a septuagenarian backpacker), vulnerable, world-weary, he makes of Africa's shift from the "mutual respect and fairness" of rural tradition to "stupefying disorder" in the cities a corollary of his own sense of doom. He knows the idea of Africa as a "violated Eden" is an outsider's myth. Indeed, a fine chapter sets the "charade" and "travesty" of life among the heritage-industry San people today against the fantasies of pristine innocence spun by "posturing fantasists" such as Laurens van der Post. Travellers in Africa always see the continent through the "distorting mirror" of their dreams and fears. Too true.

Yet, among the tourist-packaged Ju'/hoansi ("Real People"), he can't let go of that hunger for purity. Later, he converts his journey - more in detested Angola than "brighter and better" South Africa or Namibia - into a dark night of the ageing soul. The opening chapters, on a township tour in Cape Town or a luxury elephant-back safari in Namibia, offer excellent, barbed reportage à la Theroux: ironic, sceptical but still avid for news. Then the book falls off an emotional cliff. Granted, the peculiar depths of oil-rich Angola's corruption and inequity do offer a fitting backdrop for a "doomsday vision".

He seems to stop watching and listening in the way that has always fed his prose. The shutters come down: "every city is the same... a perfect fright". Angolan high spirits reflect "hysteria" - "a shrieking, chaotic... society on the brink of extinction". Contrast Mabanckou's Michel (his voice translated with grace and brio by Helen Stevenson), who learns with sad concern that because "it's so cold over there in Europe, people don't laugh much".

In a key image, Theroux sums up the dashed hopes and false choices of the African city in the form of three greasy, stringy chicken legs in a vendor's bucket - each equally repulsive, yet each unavoidable. In Tomorrow I'll be Twenty, Michel meets a rubbish-tip philosopher named Little Pepper. He spins the kid a story about how his wise and beloved grandfather's spirit entered a lone cockerel, so that now he can't see "a chicken thigh in a bin" without recalling "the man I loved more than anyone".

Still a pastoral nostalgist who pines for village life and believes like Thoreau "in the forests and the meadows", Theroux finds in the teeming cities an abbatoir for humanity, memory, affection. To Mabanckou, those qualities endure even in the discarded chicken leg of a crazy garbage-heap sifter. I suspect that his little Michel would feel sorry for the jaded, joyless voyager. And so, in the end, does the reader.

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine