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.
I recently read Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (which re-creates the trip described in The Great Railway Bazaar and comments on the earlier trip). Although I thought that the writing is better and more interesting in The Great Railway Bazaar, this book lacks the perspective on writing that makes Ghost Train to the Eastern Star special for authors.
For many years, I traveled across the United States by slow trains (on a free pass) over 72 hours. I was always glad to have the trip end . . . except for that one time I met an interesting young woman (but that's a story for another time).
I would find the kind of trip that Mr. Theroux describes to be unendurable. It's not surprising that he did, too. And that spoils much of the potential fun of this book.
He is fixated on giving you more than you ever wanted to know about bad meals, poor ticket-buying experiences, missing visas, getting drunk, poor sanitary facilities, and unpleasant companions. Mr. Theroux takes himself very seriously. That's too bad. A little humor about his situation would have helped.
From Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, it's not hard to know why: His marriage was falling apart and he couldn't really afford the trip. All I can say is that his problems show.
Imagine instead that a poor person had been granted this same opportunity: It would have been like a magic carpet ride. Unfortunately, you take yourself with you when you are a travel writer.
There are some good moments in the book. Occasionally, Mr. Theroux has enough knowledge about a country and its people to use his journey to comment in a helpful way about the culture. Most Americans will be fascinated to read about South Vietnam after American troops had pulled out and before the final reunification by force. In the early going, a fellow traveler makes the mistake of spending a little too much time at a station . . . with consequences that Mr. Theroux has some fun with.
Japanese people may not like the portrait that Mr. Theroux displays of their nation. It has little to do with railways and railway travel.
Fans of India, by contrast, may enjoy his relative enthusiasm for that populous and challenging nation.
Sometimes the material isn't in the best of taste. I didn't really need to read about his investigation of the ladies-for-hire offerings in an Asian country.
on 21 July 2013
Having read most of Theroux's travel writings, I had saved this one up for my own recent journey in Asia. I was sadly disappointed by the really rather unpleasant tone of the book - Theroux is either drunk or simply unapproachable. He seems to eschew human contact when it suits him, but then berates other travellers for their unwillingness to indulge him. Woe betide you if you happened to be put into his berth - he is rude and boorish towards his roommates, unless you happen to be well provisioned with alcohol. He seems to spend the last third of the book in a grumpy, miserable cheap-champagne induced hangover, which is scarcely a joy to behold.
Worse than his attitude to other travellers is his disdain for most of the countries he passes through, an the perfunctory visits he pays to them. I appreciate that travelling by train means you are necessarily going to be a passing visitor at best, but there is seemingly no desire to understand a country or its people, beyond visiting sex shows, bars or red light areas. His seedy visit to a brothel was just plain unpleasant to read.
I would only recommend this to anyone who has already been to Asia - this would have put me off going, which would have been a terrible shame.
on 9 March 2002
From London to Tokyo by train (where possible) and back through Siberia - it's one hell of a journey, and sometimes it feels like it. The latter chapters especially are written in a kind of "Oh, let's get this over with" style, and you don't learn much about either Russia or Russians, except that there's so much snow and cold it drives everyone to drink. The earlier chapters are more enjoyable, and his account of Japan's sex and death fascination is quite an insight. The chapters on Vietnam and India are also enjoyable, and you have the impression that he wasn't as bored and lonely in these places as he becomes later.
Although this book was written in 1975, there are very few references to contemporary events, so I didn't have the feeling (reading it in 2002) that it was nearly thirty years old. No doubt everything has changed since then, and I'd like to read a more up to date account of the trip. Having read quite a few of Theroux's travelogues, I think he's mellowed with age and maybe if he went the other way 'round next time, London - Moscow - Tokyo - Calcutta - Kabul, he'd be kinder to many of those that he meets. Of course, it wouldn't be quite as entertaining then!
on 5 May 2004
I read this book during a couple of train rides through India. It really captures the meatings you encounter on a train ride in such a country and the feelings you have both before, during and after the trip. The trip kicks off on Victoria Station in London and the authour has this idea about travelling around the world in train, since he realises that they all connects to a giant network. In the beginning he is very enthusiastic about everything, but as time passes by he gets tired and bored. This is especially clear in the last couple of chapters where he simply crosses Russia by almost not mentioning is and all off a sudden he is home. The core of this trip is the meetings with the people and the description of them in the book. The authous is very good at capturing the details and discuss them inside and out.
Overall this book captures a great trip and is both fun, teaching and interesting to read. Entertaining.
on 13 March 2012
When, some thirty years later, Paul Theroux repeated the journey that he had described in The Great Railway Bazaar, he declared travel writing to be `the lowest form of literary self-indulgence.' His original journey in the early 1970s was a deliberate act, a ruse upon which to hang a book. The travel featured was nothing less than an occupation, whose sole product was to be collected and recorded experience. We, the readers, must thank him for his single-minded devotion to selfishness, for The Great Railway Bazaar takes us all the way there without having to leave the armchair.
The journey began and finished in London. In between Paul Theroux took the orient Express to Istanbul and then crossed Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan before doing the length of India. He even went to Sri Lanka by train. Then there was Burma and a meander through South-East Asia. His account of smoking cigarettes in Vientiane will stick in the mind. Malaysia and Singapore were taken in, the latter clearly not being to the writer's taste. Japan was clearly a curious experience, but the Trans Siberia from near Vladivostok to Moscow seemed strangely predictable, its length being its major characteristic. Eventually, the final leg across Europe hardly counted, a mere step along a much bigger way.
Any such journey can only offer mere impressions of the places en route, but such first impressions are always interesting in themselves, if not always accurate or justified. Thirty years on, some of them may even have historical significance. It would be a challenging task these days to cross the current Iran and Afghanistan by rail. And a contemporary journey would surely cross China, a route barred to the 1970s independent traveller.
But it's the people met along the way that give the book its prime characters. We never get to know these people and we encounter them largely as caricatures, but it is the experience of travel that is described, and this experience inevitably involves a multitude of these ephemeral encounters. They are always engaging. We expect to be confronted with the surprising, the unknown and the little understood. We expect the experience to be recorded, whilst the mundane is edited out of the account. And furthermore, we do try to make sense of our often confused responses to the unexpected. This is why we travel: at its base it is a challenge.
Paul Theroux does litter the trip with indulgence, however. There is a fairly constant search for alcoholic beverages, for instance. Furthermore, in several places there are encounters with and deliberate attempts to seek out the local low life. Offers of girls, boys, older women, wives, transvestites and every imaginable service are received. Sometimes, the services in question require some imagination. It is easy, of course, to sensationalise experience when it is sought at the margins of what a society dares to admit. In the case of Japan, where much of this material is located, it has to be admitted that the margins are rather wide.
Balancing this crudity is Paul Theroux's constant desire to reflect upon his love of literature. Some of the material he recollects produces some wonderful insights, surprising juxtapositions and apposite comment.
Travel writing might be pure self-indulgence, but this particular example of the vice transcends the purely personal. It feels like being taken along for the ride. Thus, like all good travel writing, The Great railway Bazaar is not merely an account of another's observations, it is nothing less than a journey to be experienced.
on 18 January 2013
Having read Paul Theroux's 'To the ends of the earth' my curiosity was piqued so I ordered this volume. In the range between enthusiastic-effusive-poetic and cynical-prosaic-down to earth, Theroux veers toward the conservative which probably makes him more readable. This might suggest he travels for need rather than desire, and at times he appears to lack empathy for characters he describes.
This book is one of his earlier travel books. It is unfortunate that the transient impressions in the train do not afford Theroux more understanding of the places through which he passes. Excerpts from his later work in 'To the ends of the earth' indicate more involvement in the present moment, which will encourage me to read more of Theroux's work.
I have travelled to many of the places described, including Vietnamese Indian and Russian railways, and concur with many of his impressions. However I wish Theroux felt more joy and there was less immature carping.
on 20 July 2009
This book came highly recommended to me and I was expecting much more than I got.
First, the things I liked: Theroux is a very good storyteller and this book carried the narrative well. His descriptions of the trains he travelled on, the places he travelled through and the people he met were very realistic; especially during his descriptions of weather and landscape I felt as though I were present. He has a gift for observation and description, and this book was no exception.
However, I was very disappointed in the author's attitude. I found the tone and manner in which he describes people different to him as dismissive and condescending; in some cases his mannerisms are borderline racist. This work seems to carry a superior attitude and describes other human beings as might a scientist working with dried insects in a lab: dismissing entire populations with a mere paragraph does nothing for the work's reputation.
I also was quite disappointed by the disdain with which the author generally regards all sorts of sightseeing; he seems to regard it as beneath him and his dignity. I understand the importance of the journey and the mode of transport, but the utter dismissiveness and contempt in which he held anything outside of the actual train itself was quite a let-down.
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.
This book, Paul Theroux's first travel book, was published in 1975 and has been held up as a classic travel book ever since. This version has an introduction written in 2008 by PT where he explores the idea of travel writing and describes the principles to which he subscribes.
He has a writing style which reads like a novel. The people he meets are presented as caricatures which works well to draw a quick picture of the individuals. The problem with this is that they are all very difficult to relate to as PT seems to emphasise extreme characteristics and other elements he dislikes about people.
PT comes across as someone not really enjoying his travelling although the level of detail in the book is superb. Also the experience of travel is easy to imagine due to the clever writing.
I have found this book difficult to read but clearly lot of people do love it.