Sunday, November 28, 2010
Paul Theroux - The Great Railway Bazaar
But, increasingly I found that Theroux's descriptions were less those of an awe inspired traveller conveying the excitement of new places and more those of a cynic, coloured by not a little with belief in western superiority.
But the journey itself is amazing, London, Paris, Milan to Belgrade is epic enough. But then on to Ankara, Teheran, skipping Afghanistan by plane, he visits India from top to bottom, Burma, and Thailand (using planes to travel between countries) then a fascinating journey on a vanished railway through a Vietnam still torn by war. Plane to Japan allows Theroux to riff rather to much on the strangeness he perceives in the Japanese, finally he takes the long road home, the Trans Siberian Express through a northern USSR, strangely open and inviting to Western visitors.
But it is Theroux's style that is painful. His wonderful descriptions often lapse into some comment that seems deliberately designed to denigrate an entire people:
"The Japanese are marvellous packagers of merchandise. These souvenirs are crammed in the plastic shopping bags that form the basis of the Japanese traveller's lugage. And there are other parcels, for the nobori-san, not trusting the food on Japanese National Railways, brings his own lunch pail. When he wakes, he rummages at his feet and discovers a sealed tin of rice and fish that, without stretching or rising from his padded armchair, he eats, blowing and smacking."
When not dismissing entire cultures, there are moments of genuine passion and interest. I was taken by the number of times that Vietnamese women offered Theroux their young blond haired children, one of the legacy's of the US's ongoing presence in the country. But all in all, this enormous journey cannot really be comprehended in such a short trip. Towards the end of his journey in Japan, Theroux himself becomes exhausted by the changing places and times, entering a brief depression fueled by alcohol, he meditates on how aimless it seems. But that is not surprising, train travel is inevitably punctuated by destinations, but if your business is travel, the destinations become less important and a book written about them, will have the feel of a disjointed collection of anecdotes. Which is, perhaps, a fitting summary of these early writings.
Theroux - Riding the Red Rooster (China)
Theroux - Dark Star Safari (Africa)
Theroux - The Old Patagonian Express (The Americas)