Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Great Railway Bazaar

The Great Railway Bazaar, by Paul Theroux
1975, 379 pp.

Paul Theroux has probably seen more of the world at ground level than any other person alive. He has gone by train from Cairo to Cape Town, from Boston to Argentina, and twice from London to Southeast Asia, to Japan, then across Russia back to London. He has spent a year on trains in China, and kayaked in the South Pacific. He has walked the coast of England, been a Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda and taught in Singapore. He's written something like 20 novels and ten travel books, and he apparently knows everybody. The Great Railway Bazaar, about his first circuit of the Asian continent by train, is the book that made him famous. It's something of a classic of the travel genre, though it is unlike most travel books I've ever read.

Theroux seems to embark on his four-month odyssey not exactly out of a love for travel or curiosity about new places or due to the sort of slightly mystical wanderlust that possessed Bruce Chatwin. Instead, as he makes clear in the opening sentence, he just really likes trains. Indeed, the book is less of a travelogue and more of a description of sitting on trains. Theroux gets out periodically to sniff the air and complain, but most of his time is spent ensconced in his cabin. He gives a few defenses for this mode of travel, ranging from the highly persuasive (trains are comfortable and never spill your drink) to the dubious (train travel lets you see a country "with its pants down") to the rather self-righteous (a lengthy passage about how an experienced traveler can accurately tell everything about a given country just by looking at it out of the windows for a few minutes). He meets eccentric characters on the train, of course, though most of them are fellow travelers rather than locals, and even the locals tend to be wealthy, odd, and English-speaking. He is not particularly interested in the history or culture of the places he visits, though he is perfectly willing to dispense sweeping generalizations from his sleeping car. "Afghanistan is a nuisance," for instance. "The food smells of cholera, travel there is always uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous, and the Afghans are lazy, idle, and violent." In Burma he gets into an argument when he "questions one of the cardinal precepts of Buddhism, the principle of neglect." Burma, he explains, "is a socialist country with a notorious bureaucracy," but a Buddhist bureaucracy which demands the patience and piety of a monk who is used to a life of suffering. "Nothing happens in Burma, but then nothing is expected to happen." Sometimes these seem fairly accurate, like his impression that modernization in Turkey stopped "with the death of Ataturk, at 5 minutes past 9 on 10 November, 1938." Other times, like when he blames all of the problems in Sri Lanka on the natural laziness of the people, he just seems like a fat, obnoxious, wealthy, white man who cannot understand how the poor have failed to read Weber on the Protestant work ethic and the spirit of capitalism and why they have therefore chosen to remain in abject poverty.

But now I have given the wrong impression. It is certainly an interesting book, but it is interesting in direct proportion to the reader's interest in two things: Paul Theroux and the world of 1975. I think I have already dealt with the first; the second is more interesting. Theroux crosses Iran before the Revolution, Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion, Burma before the democracy crackdown, and Vietnam during Kissinger's "decent interval." He crosses the Sea of Japan in a rusty trawler, has a run-in with the Burmese police, and seems to start losing his mind in Japan. This is all good stuff, and he is frequently a good writer. Consider these examples:

"The brown drapery hangs in thick folds, keeping out the breeze and preserving the heat, which is paddled around the room by ten slow fans. All the tables are set, and the waiter, who might be dead, is propped against the wall at the far end of the room. It is fairly certain there is a suicide upstairs waiting to be discovered, and the flies that soar through the high-ceilinged bar are making for the corpse of this ruined planter or disgraced towkay. It is the sort of hotel that has a skeleton in every closet and a register thick with the pseudonyms of adulterers."

Though some of the misanthropy which characterizes his later work is certainly present, on the whole he seems urbane, well-read, well-traveled, and well-spoken, just certain he knows everything he needs to know and immensely disinterested in everything else. He has few experiences which would qualify as "adventures" in the normal sense of travel-book adventures, nor does he travel in the sort of low-to-the-ground semi-poverty which is the current vogue in travel literature. Theroux seems to be more of a quantity over quality traveler, and though he is gifted with a keen eye for sharp descriptions of places and people, his overwhelming interests are trains and Paul Theroux. Still, it is a fascinating account of the sort of journey only a handful of people have ever made, one which is largely impossible today, and as a book it is an important pivot point in the genre of travel writing.

No comments: