Top positive review
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Travel writing uncluttered by the need to see anyhting
on 16 April 2009
After being bowled over by Mosquito Coast (1980), which is a terrific novel, I went on to read two of Theroux's travel books - first The Happy Isles of Oceania (1992) and then The Pillars of Hercules (1996). I found the former excellent and eye-opening. Theroux paddling around in his little kayak seemed to be a great adventure. I remember little of the second book and wasn't so impressed by it. Flicking back through my copy now I can see that I've underlined much of Theroux's copious observations on those Mediterranean countries he passes through: there's a lot in there.
In contrasts to these two volumes, which were written by an older and wiser Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar (1975) - a circular train journey from London, right round Asia, and back to London again - is a much less learned affair. Once I understood the priorities and preferences of the young Theroux in this book I wondered how on Earth it could be a good read: Theroux doesn't know much about most of the countries he travels through, he only gets off the train when he can't help doing so (or to give one of the lectures which, together with an advance from his publisher, helped fund his trip - see the new introduction by Theroux himself), he openly admits that he hates sightseeing, he travels in the most luxurious (and expensive) part of the trains that he can (which often means in a private compartment) and he doesn't have a taste for idle conversation with those he meets. Not the best ingredients for a travel book, I thought, and a sharp contrast to the knowledgeable, constantly questioning and investigative older Theroux.
But somehow this is a fascinating book, and probably the best out of the three Theroux travel books I have read. Theroux's intelligence shines through - his observations, though unfounded by research, are perceptive and valid - if he doesn't get things right, his guesses are still good ones and interesting in themselves. He's a great prose writer and always a pleasure to read. And he does end up having interesting encounters and the ones he chooses to relate are usually the more bizarre. They never go anywhere, and strange and enigmatic incidents and conversations are cut off as he parts ways with these fellow voyagers, their mysteries never to be resolved.