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The Great Railway Bazaar

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Recently reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic, "The Great Railway Bazaar" is Theroux's 1975 account of a journey, mostly by train, from London to Tokyo and back.


Theroux confesses in the first sentence his attachment to the romantic notion of train travel, but the months spent on trains of all standards, from the battered, rattling local services of war torn southeast Asia to the superefficent Japanese bullet trains, almost destroy his fondness for train travel.


Theroux is from what could be called the realist school of travel writing - none of the impressionistic philosophizing of Bruce Chatwin or the broad humour of Pete McCarthy et al. here. In fact, he's perhaps understandably grumpy about many of the discomforts and inconveniences he endures, as well as misanthropic about many of the people he meets, particularly those he shares cabins with and bureaucratic train officials. I'd previously read his more recent "Dark Star Safari" and ascribed this tendency to his age, but the 30s Paul Theroux is just as cantankerous as the much older man. Son Louis's humour must be from his mother's side.


Theroux spends the odd page here and there musing on stopover points such as Istanbul but the book focusses on the journey. Since he doesn't seem to be enjoying himself much, the author makes a pretty difficult travelling companion to warm to, but on the other hand you admire him for his honesty about how gruelling his journey really is and the fact that hell can be other people. In addition, as all good travel writers must, he has an ability to transport the reader to a place in just a few words.


Apparently Theroux's next travel book is to be a retracing of this journey. Much of the territory has changed - no Middle Eastern theocracies in this book, but his passage as an American travelling in Vietnam might be a little easier now. On the basis of this book, fine though it is, one wonders why he wants to do this.

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I found his travels in India the most interesting section but from Vietnam onwards I was starting to feel just as tired with his journeying by train as he was. When he couldn't board his train in Moscow for the last homeward leg so that he'd be in time for Christmas and family in London I really felt for him.


I much preferred his Dark Star Safari. My son has really recommended Theroux's Riding the Iron Rooster so I'm off now on another armchair trip.

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I read this many years ago and to be honest don't remember anything about it at all. Though I did buy a couple of his other books shortly after (which are still languishing in the TBR listings - or should that be sidings!) so can't have hated it! :)


I tried reading the Dark Star a couple of years ago but gave up finding his grumpy wandering style not to my liking.

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I've recently finished listening to the audiobook which was read by Frank Muller. It was one of the best travel books that I have read. The combination of observations about the people met on the journey and the descriptions of the places and the train journeys worked particularly well for me. I didn't get the impression that Theroux hated the journey as such. I think there were many aspects that annoyed him or made him uncomfortable but I suspect that without these he wouldn't have had a book.

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