Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Paul Theroux - Riding the Iron Rooster, By Train Through China

I've reviewed several other of Paul Theroux's travel writings elsewhere and one of the things that has struck me time and again, is that he tends to have a somewhat condescending attitude to the people he meets. I remarked on this in my review of his book about his travels through America "The Old Patagonian Express" and re-reading that review after finishing his book about travelling through China, I was struck by the similarities.

This book documents Paul Theroux's second visit to China. This is China in a period of immense change, with millions of people attempting to come to terms with the recent past and the future. He travels from London, by train of course, with a collection of odd-balls and people who seem to be deliberately chosen to annoy him. As an aside, I have to admit to a slight unease with the way that Theroux hides who and what he is. Perhaps he feels that if people know that he is writing about his travel experiences then they won't behave naturally - though you could also argue it's unfair to air people's dirty laundry in public without their consent.

Passing through Eastern Europe just as Chernobyl explodes the travelogue almost becomes a metaphor for the failure of the Stalinist version of socialism. But he avoids this because he has a better understanding of ordinary people and a realisation that the country he comes from has limited moral standing (Reagen had just bombed Tripoli as he sets off).

But the bulk of the book is Theroux cris-crossing China. He avoids the tourist sites in the main, having seen them before, trying to concentrate on the little known destinations accessible by train. Along the way he meets dozens of people, with very similar stories.

China at the time was recovering from the decade long social experiment that was Mao's "Cultural Revolution". This period of social and economic upheaval was an attempt by the ruling class of China to reassert ideological and political power, by sweeping away what were deemed "liberal bourgeois" who were trying to bring back capitalism. In practice this meant the persecution of anyone who displayed any interest or favour for any cultural ideals that didn't fit into the strictest (and most totalitarian) definition of socialist ideas. English teachers were hounded for teaching Shakespeare, professors were forced to work in the fields, religious buildings were razed to the ground and the monks forced to work for the revolution.

Such activities, urged on by political cadres galvanised many thousands into frenzied work, but a decade later the period was whispered about and referred to obliquely. Theroux tries to get to the bottom of what happened and how ordinary people feel about it. He meets a few who stand by what was done, perhaps believing there was only the odd excess. The majority seem to think that the whole affair was a giant mistake.

Perversely, the reaction to the Cultural Revolution amongst people seems to have had the opposite effect to what Mao would have wanted. Everywhere he goes, Theroux encounters people desperate to make a fortune. The opening up of the economy to the free market is everywhere and despite official statements to the contrary it's clear that there is a rising capitalist class who are doing very well for themselves, alongside an ever impovrished class of workers and peasents.

Paul Theroux isn't a socialist, so he can't explain what happened in China - that this wasn't a genuine working class led revolution and Mao didn't rule in the interests of ordinary people. But despite his condascending tone, his simple descriptive style and his lack of presumption about people and places makes this another fascinating read.

Related Reviews

Theroux - Dark Star Safari
Theroux - The Old Patagonian Express

1 comment:

Emily said...

I do concurr with your last paragraph!