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.
Towards the end of this book Theroux ponders on how it is that some of the places he’d visited on his trip already seemed familiar: he recognises that Nadine Gordimer’s writing had made Johannesburg seem like a city he was returning to as had Mahfouz’s work done for him in Egypt.
I think Paul Theroux succeeds in this book, like the writers he praises, in conveying the ‘texture and emotions of a real place, making the reading of the work like a travel experience’.
Theroux is not a sightseeing tourist in Africa, nor is he one for safaris, but one who gets down and dirty, making use of public transport whenever he can - mostly run-down trains and buses – and the occasional taxis and lifts. Through Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, Mozambique he goes and finally South Africa – and it’s only in the latter, staying for once in a big hotel, that having locked his bag and every expensive thing he owned in the safekeeping of the hotel’s padlocked strongroom does he find after four days absence that the bag had been stolen, losing his watch, wallet, cash, air tickets as well as artefacts.
In his youth Theroux had spent two years in the Peace Corps in Malawi and after being thrown out from that country took up a post in Uganda, at Kampala University. He occasionally meets up with old African contacts who confirm what he notices, that everything has got worse. In Tanzania, for example, ‘forty years of independent rule and foreign investment….and this vast fertile country of twenty million people had achieved a condition of near bankruptcy and had one factory’.
He points out time and again the futility of charity, the ‘aid industry’ in Africa. He writes that it is non-inspirational, aliens having been helping for so long and were so deeply entrenched that ‘Africans lost interest – if indeed they had ever had it – in doing the same sort of work themselves’. Tyrants, he writes, love aid. Aid helps keep them stay in power: aid helps maintain the status quo.
I had a chuckle near the end when towards the end of his trip he sees a man reading that day’s Johannesburg Star when some words catch his eye: flagged on the front top of the paper was the headline ‘PESSIMISTIC GLOBETROTTER WINS NOBEL PRIZE’. ‘Looks like I’ve got the big one’ he murmured. He leaves it to the reader to figure out it was his old friend V S Naipaul.
This is an account of Paul Theroux's travels through China by train in the mid 1980s.
Taking the train was the author's way of getting to understand China: if he has a choice, sleepy branch lines are his favourite form of train travel. He's rarely interested in the big cities or the famous tourist sites but likes nothing more than to amble about in backwater places to meet and talk to local people (he can speak Mandarin). He never stays in upmarket tourist hotels and most often ends up in some right dumps.
You expect him to question the Chinese he meets about their attitude to Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution - they're quite candidly aghast at what went on then - but what's more interesting are some of the throwaway lines "’women’s legs are a rare enough sight in China", "they [the young women] even had to have a fancy brassiere, probably the most superfluous garment in China", and "but the cook sized me up and did one of the cruellest things any cook can do in rural China: he made me western food – what he considered to be western food – undercooked potatoes, pink chicken and boiled cabbage".
Anybody who has read Paul Theroux will know that he never goes into raptures about anything but the nearest he comes to it is in describing the limestone landscapes of southern China, the landscape of the hills depicted in every Chinese scroll or, in contrast, Turpan in Inner Mongolia where the side alleys are thick with grape vines, or Qingdao, a port and seaside resort facing the Yellow Sea that had once been a German imperialist outpost but had in the end turned out to be a seaside retirement town whose houses wouldn't have disgraced the streets of Bexhill-on-Sea.
I was really pleased my son had recommended this book.