5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
This review is from: The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia (Penguin Modern Classics) (Paperback)It hardly needs repeating that Paul Theroux is an exceptionally gifted writer. Moreover, this is a very skilfully written story, full of original and acute perceptions put across with wit and point. Theroux recounts a series of train journeys, interspersed with boat trips or aeroplane links where the rail option is not available, as for instance when making a sea crossing or in railless Afghanistan. In the course of this journey he has a number of lecturing engagements, presumably arranged in advance, for which I assume (although he does not say so) that he received a fee. I assume also that what took him away from his home and family for so many long months was not just the enjoyment of rail travel that he owns up to, but financial recompense for the book that he intended to publish as a record of his trip.
Earning an honest living by writing, and by travel writing in particular, is a worthy and honourable pursuit. However when the people represented in the story are real people, and the incidents are true occurrences, and the statements recorded are what people really said, there are to my way of thinking certain standards of taste and propriety that should be carefully adhered to. Personal records of travel and encounters along the way are presented impeccably in, say, Germaine Greer's 'Daddy We Hardly Knew You' or in Peter Hessler's River Town and Oracle Bones. In these narratives the authors have reasons for being where they are and for meeting who they meet. These are accounts of research, investigation and exploration from which the books are a spin-off. They have not just taken a trip with a view to parading whoever they might happen to meet before the public at large, which is really what Theroux is doing here. Was the permission of Mr Duffill or Mr Molesworth sought before their statements and actions were made public? I doubt it somehow, but my idea of propriety doesn't even necessarily require that. The parties reported sympathetically by Dr Greer obviously knew what she was doing, but the personae she disliked would not have been consulted about what she intended to say about that them, and that is fine by me. What I am not happy about is going out on a fishing trip and subsequently dangling the fish on a line to be gawped at or derided. Some instances are worse than others. It is not particularly offensive to pillory the downmarket press of any country, such as the Indian weekly 'Blitz' which informed him regarding some rowdy individual that 'He was high and headstrong...Hurled abuse at some and then fisted a guest', in which the last verb is not used in a more recent sense but means 'punched'. I also can't deny that I was amused (rather guiltily) at the clever representation of his Japanese host's offer to show him the local Tiergarten 'You want to see tzu?' 'What kind of tzu?' 'Wid enemas'. Very smart, very clever, but coming from someone who spoke no Japanese more than a little patronising and de haut en bas.
I think it is the chapter on Japan that brings out in particular the slight sense of distaste I feel for this book. Theroux recounts at some length and with some particularity erotic shows and publications patronised by placid-seeming middle-class Japanese. I find the shows as he describes them somewhat disgusting, but in a rather detached way. What revolts me more acutely is the spectacle of the audiences themselves, and that brings to the fore in my mind the nature of Theroux's own narration. What exactly is he doing there in the first place? He is another audience on the next tier. Does he have some mission to tell the world about all this? Is he engaged in academic research? None of that, and he does at least show awareness of the issue, admitting that he is a bit of a drone amusing himself idly and in the process making rather free with other people's privacy for the entertainment of a paying public.
All that said, the book still has plenty to recommend it. I felt that the later chapters are better than the earlier, which have too much sense about them of 'oh look at these people doing these things' and 'this guy said this three-quarter's of a page worth to me'. There was a sharp improvement starting with the chapter on Singapore, where Theroux's trenchant comments seem to me to be not only valid in themselves but also to satisfy one of my own requirements from a book of this kind by offering analysis and generalisation rather than just random detail. Also, the book was written in the early 1970's, and so is a reminder of an epoch. This was pre-junta Burmah, for instance. It was the time of the cold war. South Africa was still under apartheid although the availability of the industrial capacity of the Japanese obtained for them the status of 'white' from Mr Botha or whoever was in charge in South Africa at the time in question. Above all, it was the time of the war in Vietnam, and the vignettes of that ravaged nation as recounted by so talented and independent a storyteller made a vivid impression on one reader at least.
At one point Theroux comments that travel narratives turn into autobiography. The books I have instanced by Greer and Hessler are certainly autobiography and rightly so. I only wish this book had practised what it preaches. Theroux gives away comparatively little about himself apart from his participation in a few dialogues, the purpose of which is largely to pillory his interlocutors, and I particularly miss precisely this sense of personal development which he himself says one should expect.
There is next to nothing for railway geeks, but if I remember one thing above all from the book, it is the tantalising semi-description of the viaduct at Gokteik in Burmah.