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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
As others have pointed out, Theroux has a rather different style of travel writing from many others. Though he is clearly well read and conveys a great deal of knowledge through his writing, I have to agree that at times his judgemental nature regarding the people and places he encounters is annoying. The arrogance is profound but at times it almost seems naive - which for someone so well travelled seems bizarre.

At one point in the book, he comes across a guy in his young 20s who is reading a comic book. Theroux attacks this as evidence of a poor mind, is disappointed that he is not reading something more intellectually challenging! What exactly is he expecting a poor Peruvian to read - Byron? Bronte? Wordsworth? He almost seems to fail to consider the possibility that, in this young man's life, maybe comic books a form of escapism, where he can forget the poverty he lives in and engross himself in a fantasy.

I preferred Ryszard Kapuscinski's "The Shadow of the Sun" - that is to my mind the way travel books should be written. Tremendously informative yet at the same time capturing the very essence of the places he visits.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on 15 December 2006
People tend to either love or hate Paul Theroux, and although I can sympathise with his detractors I belong to the former camp. He is an uncompromising author that calls things as he sees them, refusing to romanticise or sensationalise his experiences. Although he comes across as a misanthropist, it seems paradoxal that he should put himself into the situations he does. Travelling in Latin America, as in many parts of the developing world, is not an experience recommended for anyone who values their personal space or desires escaping from humanity.

From 'Riding the Iron Rooster', to the more recent 'Dark Star Safari', to this, Theroux concentrates more on the journies than the destinations, refusing to make life easy (or remotely comfortable) for himself. Theroux's maxim as a travel writer is that transport tells you more about a country than the 'sights' themselves: 'The journey, not the arrival, matters; the voyage, not the landing'.

One of Theroux's main criticisms is that he places himself too centrally in his non-fiction, that we learn more about him than the places he visits. He is at his worst when comparing himself to the other travellers he encounters, categorising and dismissing people with an immense and transparent arrogance. However, if accepted as part of the Theroux 'brand' you can forgive some of his negative characteristics and appreciate his relentless eye for the tragedy and comedy of the developing world. Probably his best travel book, The Old Patagonian Express finds him at his most archly ironic and entertaining.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on 23 July 2003
This book is undoubtedly one of the benchmarks for travel writing. Paired with his other great travel work, the Great Railway Bazaar, Theroux manages to cover almost the entire globe by train, meeting a curious menagerie of characters on route and describing places as they really are - scary, smelly, dangerous, beautiful, confusing, beguiling - rather than duping readers into thinking that all exotic places are by nature fabulous. Like much of Theroux's travel writing it gives off a palpable air of isolation and loneliness - and for anyone who has travelled alone in the strange places of the world this tone is genuinely evocative. A tour de force that is still to be matched by any of today's writers.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
In 1979, Paul Theroux departed from his childhood home in Medford, Massachusetts, and began his train journey from the East Coast of the United States to Patagonia, on the southern tip of Argentina. A seasoned traveler, fluent in Spanish, Theroux brings this trip through the northern and southern hemispheres to life, traveling without a schedule, and observing his fellow passengers on the train and people at stops along the way.

In Texas he is astonished at the contrasts between Laredo on the Texas side of the Rio Grande and Nuevo Laredo across the border in Mexico, commenting on society and governments. Traveling through Mexico and Guatemala, he observes the poverty of the Indians and their lack of opportunities. In El Salvador he attends a soccer game and gets caught up in the melee and riots which follow it. In Costa Rica, the cleanest country he has visited, he finds himself stuck on the train with Mr. Thornberry, a New Hampshire tourist so boring that Theroux cannot wait to escape him--only to have Mr. Thornberry "save his life" by offering him a place to stay upon his arrival in Limon. In Panama he meets the "Zonians," from the Canal Zone, and in Cali, Colombia, he meets a married "priest" who cannot tell his devout mother in Belfast that he has "left" the church to marry and have children.

Throughout his trip, Theroux reads classics, particularly enjoying Boswell's Life of Dr. Johnson and Edgar Allen Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, both of which provide ironic reference points for his own journey. For literature lovers, the most fascinating section occurs in Buenos Aires, when Theroux spends many days visiting blind writer Jorge Luis Borges, who persuades Theroux to read to him. Ironically, one of Borges's favorite novels is The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. As Theroux takes notes on his meetings with Borges, he becomes Borges's Boswell.

More an observer than a participant, Theroux has an unfortunate air of superiority about what he sees and hears. Sparing little sympathy for American and German tourists, he rarely gets excited about his surroundings, expressing genuine emotion only when he talks with three boys, ages ten to twelve, who live in a doorway and scavenge for food because their rural families have abandoned them. Theroux's self-congratulatory attitude gets a bit wearisome, but the picture of Central and South America, thirty years ago, and the section with Borges are unparalleled. With beautiful, carefully observed prose and a great ear for dialogue, Theroux's Patagonia Express is a landmark travel memoir. Mary Whipple
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 1 March 2012
I adored this book. Theroux's lack of sentiment and unwillingness to feel the need to inject humour into this travelogue makes it for me. Can anyone really say that they have had a perfect trip, lacking of all of the irksome and intruding elements that Theroux encounters during his track-rattling journey to Patagonia? There's a place for the Bill Brysons of this world- funny- and I like him also but for a different purpose, but to get the true feel of travel Theroux evokes it perfectly. Most of it is interesting yet tiresome, evocative but critical; to paraphrase Alain de Botton, you can travel to escape but you cannot escape yourself. I've always adored Paul Theroux's writing be it fiction or non- ("Hotel Honolulu" is a dream of a novel) but for the armchair traveller looking for the full experience of being bothered to get up and go, this gives you the fascinating yet weary warts-and-all experience of making the effort. 5 stars for a book I loved twelve years ago, and a book I've loved all over again. An added bonus (rather like the extra features on a DVD if you bother with film) is the wonderful meeting with Borges. In the infamous tower, Theroux would be at the top with Chatwin in the Travel section!
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 12 July 2006
As other reviewers have pointed out, this is travel writing minus the romance, minus the slight exaggerations, minus... the drama?

I should be thankful for Theroux's honesty, but I guess I wanted that sense of the magical, exotic and adventurous that a reader gets from Bruce Chatwin, or at least the laughs you get with Bill Bryson. There are truly funny parts and characters in this book along with some exciting passages, some colourful local folk lore and some evocative descriptions of the scenery. But Theroux seems so constantly glum about the whole process, one does wonder why he persists on these horrible, festering trains and he doesn't just take the bus/plane like everyone else who can afford it. My abiding memory of this book is an image of the author sitting on an uncomfortable seat, trying to read one or another book and smoking his pipe... I'd hate to be in his carriage.

I wouldn't want to put anyone off reading this book, though. It is superb writing and I will certainly be reading some of his other titles, but I find it hard to imagine that this will inspire anyone to pack their suitcase and aim for Tierra Del Fuego.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
In 1979, Paul Theroux departed from his childhood home in Medford, Massachusetts, and began his train journey from the East Coast of the United States to Patagonia, on the southern tip of Argentina. A seasoned traveler, fluent in Spanish, Theroux brings to life his trip through the northern and southern hemispheres, traveling without a schedule and observing his fellow passengers on the train and people at stops along the way.

In Texas he is astonished at the contrasts between Laredo on the Texas side of the Rio Grande and Nuevo Laredo across the border in Mexico, commenting on society and governments. Traveling through Mexico and Guatemala, he observes the poverty of the Indians and their lack of opportunities. In El Salvador he attends a soccer game and gets caught up in the melee and riots which follow it. In Costa Rica, the cleanest country he has visited, he finds himself stuck on the train with Mr. Thornberry, a New Hampshire tourist so boring that Theroux cannot wait to escape him--only to have Mr. Thornberry "save his life" by offering him a place to stay upon his arrival in Limon. In Panama he meets the "Zonians," from the Canal Zone, and in Cali, Colombia, he meets a married "priest" who cannot tell his devout mother in Belfast that he has "left" the church to marry and have children.

Throughout his trip, Theroux reads classics, particularly enjoying Boswell's Life of Dr. Johnson and Edgar Allen Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, both of which provide ironic reference points for his own journey. For literature lovers, the most fascinating section occurs in Buenos Aires, where Theroux spends many days visiting blind writer Jorge Luis Borges, who persuades Theroux to read to him. Ironically, one of Borges's favorite novels is The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. As Theroux takes notes on his meetings with Borges, he becomes Borges's Boswell.

More an observer than a participant, Theroux has an unfortunate air of superiority about what he sees and hears. Sparing little sympathy for American and German tourists, he rarely gets excited about his surroundings, expressing genuine emotion only when he talks with three boys, ages ten to twelve, who live in a doorway and scavenge for food because their rural families have abandoned them. Theroux's self-congratulatory attitude gets a bit wearisome, but the picture of Central and South America, thirty years ago, and the section with Borges are unparalleled. With beautiful, carefully observed prose and a great ear for dialogue, Theroux's Patagonian Express is a landmark travel memoir. Mary Whipple

Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town
The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia (Penguin Modern Classics)
Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China
The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific
The Collected Stories
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on 5 March 2012
Well, now I've read this almost classic account in it's way, and I agree with the critics who felt that it was a disappointment in that it was sorely limited with describing with a fair amount of chagrin and detachment on the part of the author the rail journey from Massachusetts to Patagonia without any time given to feel each place in which he stepped off the train to break the journey. And the trains themselves were an ordeal to say the least. The fellow travellers mute, or annoying and filthy in their habits made one crawl alive with itching or longing to stretch one's legs in a real bed- except that the beds were crawling alive with bugs in every "hotel" he dared to put up in. The journey took one through every inconvenience immaginable from whore towns, to sordid carriages, and facilities (that's a good word!) to extreme temperatures of excessive heat to cold at dire altitudes in impossible situations in the Andes, and at moments however Paul Theroux describes with a stroke of reportage genius the incongruous characters he meets ,just as in life- sitting on a bench in a square, a women who almost drags him down into her quest for a poor fisherman in Veracruz to save him from death, saved only by his need to catch the next train to Guatemala.The only comfortable stretch was when he changed trains for Argentina until the writer Borges tells him the trains are regularly bombed (we are in the 1970's!).
I wouldn't recommend this book but just the same it was a ride through these countries albeit really about the author's attitudes to life and inabilty to enjoy anything of which he experienced.
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on 26 July 2012
Incarcerated on a hospital bed for 8 weeks my kindle was my bed companion , I recall reading the Consuls Wife by Paul Theroux many years ago, my personal vacations have been mountain walking in Britain and across Europe. In bed my thoughts centred on the world outside and my way of escape was to read at long last The Pantagonian Express. I was with him all the way, in hot smelly trains, and just as Paul from time to time had to kick his heals, from my bed I sympathized with him, I too was often hot and sweaty but for other reasons. Always with Paul his tales, like Chatwin's are bought to life with the people he meets.To me that is the essence of travelling. My experience in my enforced incarceration is memorable for all the people I met, from the cardiologist who sat at my bedside the night before my operation where we discussed Edgar Alan Poe ( I had been to see the movie Poe's Raven where 4 mins into the movie Poe was dissecting a heart, thankfully I am not squeamish) the doctors,nurses and support staff from all nationalities all made my stay worthwhile, just as the people Paul met. I f these fellow passengers had been omitted from his tales, it would have been just another (boring)train journey.
My dreams (after my hallucinations faded)were achieved in my vicarious journey in the Pantagonian Express.
Thank you PT
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It seemed The Old Patagonian Express Theroux was the only Paul Theroux travelogue I never heard about. I wondered whether it might not be as good as his others, but it is just as good as most of them and better than at least one. I don't think you can go wrong with Paul Theroux. He records everything on his travels and then distills his notes to the most interesting bits. The premise for the book is simple: Theroux takes the train from his native Boston all the way to southern Argentina. You will find all the trenchant observations and unusual "characters" you would in the better-known Great Railway Bazaar and you will find the same consistent quality of writing. With the completion of Patagonian Express, I have now read all of Theroux's travel writing, or at least his eight major works. Now I'm starting on his fiction. What a talent.

Troy Parfitt is the author of Why China Will Never Rule the World
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