Theroux’s Rail Odyssey

On this day in 1973 Paul Theroux departed on the 15:30 from London’s Victoria Station for Paris, the Orient Express, and the twenty-nine other trains that would take him on the fourteen-week journey documented in The Great Railway Bazaar. This was the first of Theroux’s travel books, and decades later it is still on many Top Ten lists, credited with having revived an exhausted genre.

Theroux recently revisited the countries of The Great Railway Bazaar, following much of the original itinerary for his 2008 book, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. Theroux’s other writing sometimes borrows from his travel books, though we here enter the world of postmodernism, if not “post-tourism.” At one point in the “imaginary memoir” My Other Life (1996), “Paul Theroux” meets an Iranian woman he only glimpsed in passing during his real Bazaar journey in 1973. The fictional woman chews out the fictional author for a comment made by the real author about the real woman — that she would be found sexually attractive only to one “alone in the Iranian mountains for four months.”

Any reader revisiting The Great Railway Bazaar might encounter a different sort of déjà vu. Theroux couldn’t wait to escape Afghanistan the first time around — “the Afghans are lazy, idle, and violent” — and when he was finally able to take the once-a-week Khyber Mail to Peshawar in Pakistan, he “liked lazing on the verandah, shaking out my newspaper, and watching the tongas go by, and I enjoyed hearing Pakistanis discussing the coming war with Afghanistan”:

I gave them encouragement and said they would find an enthusiastic well-wisher in me if they ever cared enough to invade that barbarous country…. “I hope you will help us,” one said. I explained that I was not a very able soldier. He said, “Not you in person, but America in general.” I said I couldn’t promise national support, but that I would be glad to put a word in for them.
The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph. In the odor of the station there is a passing whiff of station café odor. There is someone looking through the befogged class, he opens the glass door of the bar, everything is misty, inside, too, as if seen by nearsighted eyes, or eyes irritated by coal dust. The pages of the book are clouded like the windows of an old train, the cloud of smoke rests on the sentences….

—from the opening chapter of If on a winter’s night a traveler, by Italo Calvino, who died on this day in 1985

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at