Clickety- clack, the old traveller’s back
PAUL Theroux is backtracking, retracing the route he took to write The Great Railway Bazaar. It’s more than three decades since that epic travel narrative, which stands among the best of its genre. But the complicated journey that spawned the original book resulted in loss and dislocation, as Theroux reveals in this confessional follow- up.
On the eve of that solo outing in 1973, his then wife had asked Theroux not to go. But he did, was horribly homesick for her and his children on the 41/ 2- month expedition, catching trains of all rackety sorts across Asia, and when he finally got back to London his wife had taken a lover. ‘‘ How could you do this?’’ he howled at her. ‘‘ I pretended you were dead.’’ Much has happened to our traveller in the intervening years. He has emerged as arguably the finest travel author of his generation. Even his detractors, most of whom dismiss him as grumpy and smug, would concede he is one of the most prolific and wide- ranging travel scribes, always with a grand expedition up his sleeve.
These critics may scoff at Theroux’s nostalgia as he occupies train compartments of varying comfort and efficiency through Europe and across the subcontinent into Southeast Asia, Japan and Russia. Even he admits that not many peripatetic writers choose to go back.
‘‘ Graham Greene never returned
the Liberian bush, nor to Mexico, nor to Vietnam,’’ he writes. Similarly, Eric Newby did the Ganges but once and Joseph Conrad ‘‘ ended up hating the prospect of seafaring’’. But Theroux has always loved the idea of trespass in all its permutations, of travel as an act of disappearance. And he’s dotty about trains; there’s real relish in his descriptions of clickety- clack journeys in his other train journals, The Old Patagonian Express and ( in China) Riding the Iron Rooster.
Theroux clearly appreciates the anonymity and possibilities offered by this rather unfashionable form of getting about. He likes to talk to people, to have conversations with locals, never tourists, whom he sees as ‘‘ licensed bores’’; and trains, with their sense of concealment and enclosure, promote unguarded discourse.
Theroux contends that ‘‘ travel holds the magical possibility of reinvention’’ but what is remarkable is he doesn’t seem any older. Never the wide- eyed traveller, his writing has always been opinionated and he has an undimmed penchant for discomfort; it’s always easier and more fun, of course, to write about disaster than to praise the perfection of one’s journeys.
But readers should never confuse his anger for pessimism; his may be a soapbox stance but he is, at heart, a curious seeker of truths. Not for Theroux the measured tolerance of old age: he’s still tearing to shreds the blighted countries he passes through. ‘‘ The world is deteriorating and shrinking to a ball of bungled desolation.’’
He continues to journey alone, recording what he sees and hears in a small notebook with ‘‘ a preferred brand of ballpoint pen’’. His is the meticulousness of a researcher, imparting to readers the telling details we crave. Of Budapest, he writes, ‘‘ The sight of the old pockmarked city of puddles, smutty under the snowmelt, Keleti Station looming like a Hungarian madhouse in the rain, the slushy streets and muddy sidewalks, defrosting and dripping after the long winter — all of it made me hopeful.’’
While Bruce Chatwin referred to himself as a ‘‘ leaver- out of things’’, Theroux is a ‘‘ putterin’’. This is unsurprising, given his success as a novelist and writer of vividly detailed short stories. But we must be occasionally sceptical about the veracity of the searching conversations he has with random rail travellers in rural regions who surely can’t speak perfect English.
There’s no need for such scepticism when he meets fellow travel author Pico Iyer in his adopted home of Kyoto. The two men talk and walk with ease as Theroux envies Iyer’s slight build, his ‘‘ taking up so little space’’. They speak of Chatwin, Redmond O’Hanlon, Norman Lewis and famous vagabonds, and it’s such a revealing scene, these two chaps wandering about an ancient Japanese city gently gossiping and dissecting their peers.
‘‘ Don’t you think Jan Morris was at her best when she was writing for Rolling Stone in the ’ 80s?’’ Iyer asks. Of the evaluation, Theroux writes that he and Iyer assigned points ‘‘ to those who travelled alone and wrote well, detracting points for attitude, posturing, lying, fictionalising or being blimpish’’.
This splendid book offers a rare insight into a man who lost faith in his marriage after The Great Railway Bazaar but still kept going, roving and recording, consolidating his high place in the realms of travel writing. But be prepared for a bittersweet tone — ‘‘ Travel,’’ he concludes, ‘‘ is the saddest of pleasures’’ — and an occasional fretfulness.
Here’s a man in his 60s still searching for big answers. And it’s a pleasure, as ever, to join him, however vicariously, on his quest.