Acclaimed travel writer and novelist Theroux hasn't lost his affection for trains, but his view of the scenery outside has darkened in his latest odyssey. Reprising the itinerary of his 1973 The Great Railway Bazaar(with a detour around Iran and Afghanistan into the Central Asian republics), Theroux takes a contrarian stance toward the transformation of Asia over the intervening decades. The persistence of familiar, authentic, rural decrepitude usually heartens him, while the teeming modernity of great cities-the computer-and-oxcart madhouses of Mumbai and Bangalore, the neurotic orderliness of Singapore, the soullessness of Tokyo-appalls. The book is often an elegy for fixity in a globalizing age when everyone is a traveler anxious to get to America and "the world is deteriorating and shrinking to a ball of bungled desolation." Fortunately, Theroux is too rapt an observer of his surroundings and himself to wallow long in reaction or nostalgia; readers will find his usual wonderfully evocative landscapes and piquant character sketches (and, everywhere, prostitutes soliciting him-most stylishly in Hanoi, where they ride up on motorcycles crying, "You come! Boom-boom!"). No matter where his journey takes him, Theroux always sends back dazzling post cards. (Aug.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Thirty-three years after taking the trek he recounted in The Great Railway Bazaar, Theroux hits the rails again, duplicating as best he can that earlier trip through Eastern Europe, central Asia, India, Southeast Asia, Japan, and Siberia. His new memoir abounds with comparisons to that first trip, geographically, politically, and personally. Theroux recalls how one critique of The Great Railway Bazaar described it as "caustic"; his descriptions here may not be precisely that, but his tone can be off-putting, e.g., there's a touch of misogyny in his treatment of some of the women he encounters. He also adopts a traveler-not-tourist tone, which some readers may find refreshing but others may simply see as smug. In conjunction with this outlook, he tends to seek out the seedier sides of his locales in order to find what he believes is the "real" place. These "real" places include everything from porn shops to sex traffickers. In short, this is not light reading. Nevertheless, Theroux is an important American writer. Recommended for libraries where The Great Railway Bazaar has been popular. [See Prepub Alert, LJ4/15/08.]
Travel writer and novelist Theroux (The Elephanta Suite, 2007, etc.) offers an elegiac retracing of roads and railroads taken across the vastness of Eurasia. Rejoining his 1975 travelogue The Great Railway Bazaar, Theroux takes to the chemin de fer from London to Kyoto four decades older and, it seems, more inclined to the better things in life ("a woman in a blue uniform brought me a bottle of Les Jamelles Chardonnay Vin de Pays d'Oc 2004 . . . and then the lunch tray: terrine de poulet et de broccolis, chutney de tomates, the entree a fillet of lightly peppered salmon, with coup de chocolat for dessert"). He is a touch rueful and more than a touch reflective, viewing his metaphorically mirrored self in the sleeping-compartment window and thinking of marriages, friendships and youth lost. The meditative aspect soon yields to Theroux's testy, Kiplingesque impatience with the cultures east of Folkestone, to his allergy to the "Asiatic ambiguity" that lies before him. He is willing to debate such things with the people he meets, unafraid to argue the relative merits of Western civilization vis-a-vis Islam, to name just one topic of conversation. As with his previous books, Theroux is unafraid of roughing it in the interest of getting a story, and some of his new memoir's best moments find him stealing across snowy, remote borders, "like a specter, in a strange country at nightfall," only to have his strength and compass restored by a delicious bottle of wine or morsel. Theroux wanders to places that scarcely cross most other travel writers' minds, among them Vientiane ("a sleepy town on the banks of the muddy river, famous for its cheap beer") and Phnom Penh ("scruffy, rather beaten-up . .. like a scarred human face in which its violent past was evident"). He also keeps up a running argument with the books he reads along the way, to say nothing of his contemporaries (Chatwin never traveled alone, he harrumphs, and neither does bete noire Naipaul). Fans of Theroux will say that he hasn't lost his touch; the more critical will say that he breaks no new ground. Either way, worth looking into.
From the Publisher
.readers will find his usual wonderfully evocative landscapes and piquant character sketches...No matter where his journey takes him, Theroux always sends back dazzling post cards." Publishers Weekly, Starred
"Theroux wanders to places that scarcely cross other travel writers' minds, among tham Vientiane ('a sleepy town on the banks of the muddy river, famous for its cheap beer') and Phnom Penh ('scruffy, rather beaten-up...like a scarred human face in which its violent past was evident'). He also keeps up a running argument with the books he reads along the way, to say nothing of his contemporaries )Chatwin never traveled alone, he harumphs, and neither does his bete noire Naipaul."
"Brilliant. No one writes with theroux's head-on intensity and raptness, and his descriptions made me want to jump on the next plane to Istanbul (and also, of course, to many of the other places he evokes). I particularly loved the spectral motif, the ghosts and shadows and underground presences that flit through the narrative, giving the whole a half-seen and haunting dimension that no book of travels I've ever read conjures up." --Pico Iyer
“As thoughtful and observant as ever…this trip finds Theroux reflecting not only on changes to the landscape but also to himself…a wonderful book infused with the insights of maturity…it’s a reminder that in this age of increasingly homogenous urban centers and easy air travel, those who really want to discern national differences should stay on the ground.”
Booklist, ALA, Starred Review
Read an Excerpt
You think of travelers as bold, but our guilty secret is that travel is one of the laziest ways on earth of passing the time. Travel is not merely the business of being bone-idle, but also an elaborate bumming evasion, allowing us to call attention to ourselves with our conspicuous absence while we intrude upon other people’s privacy — being actively offensive as fugitive freeloaders. The traveler is the greediest kind of romantic voyeur, and in some well-hidden part of the traveler’s personality is an unpickable knot of vanity, presumption, and mythomania bordering on the pathological. This is why a traveler’s worst nightmare is not the secret police or the witch doctors or malaria, but rather the prospect of meeting another traveler.
Most writing about travel takes the form of jumping to conclusions, and so most travel books are superfluous, the thinnest, most transparent monologuing. Little better than a license to bore, travel writing is the lowest form of literary self-indulgence: dishonest complaining, creative mendacity, pointless heroics, and chronic posturing, much of it distorted with Munchausen syndrome.
Of course, it’s much harder to stay at home and be polite to people and face things, but where’s the book in that? Better the boastful charade of pretending to be an adventurer:
Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads, Crouch in the fo’c’sle Stubbly with goodness,
in a lusty “Look-at-me!” in exotic landscapes.
This was more or less my mood as I was packing to leave home. I also thought: But there is curiosity. Even the most timid fantasists need the satisfaction of now and then enacting their fantasies. And sometimes you just have to clear out. Trespassing is a pleasure for some of us. As for idleness, “An aimless joy is a pure joy.” And there are dreams: one, the dream of a foreign land that I enjoy at home, staring east into space at imagined temples, crowded bazaars, and what V. S. Pritchett called “human architecture,” lovely women in gauzy clothes, old trains clattering on mountainsides, the mirage of happiness; two, the dream state of travel itself. Often on a trip, I seem to be alive in a hallucinatory vision of difference, the highly colored unreality of foreignness, where I am vividly aware (as in most dreams) that I don’t belong; yet I am floating, an idle anonymous visitor among busy people, an utter stranger. When you’re strange, as the song goes, no one remembers your name.
Travel can induce such a distinct and nameless feeling of strangeness and disconnection in me that I feel insubstantial, like a puff of smoke, merely a ghost, a creepy revenant from the underworld, unobserved and watchful among real people, wandering, listening while remaining unseen. Being invisible — the usual condition of the older traveler — is much more useful than being obvious. You see more, you are not interrupted, you are ignored. Such a traveler isn’t in a hurry, which is why you might mistake him for a bum. Hating schedules, depending on chance encounters, I am attracted by travel’s slow tempo.
Ghosts have all the time in the world, another pleasure of long- distance aimlessness — traveling at half speed on slow trains and procrastinating. And this ghostliness, I was to find, was also an effect of the journey I had chosen, returning to places I had known many years ago. It is almost impossible to return to an early scene in your traveling life and not feel like a specter. And many places I saw were themselves sad and spectral, others big and hectic, while I was the haunting presence, the eavesdropping shadow on the ghost train.
Long after I took the trip I wrote about in The Great Railway Bazaar I went on thinking how I’d gone overland, changing trains across Asia, improvising my trip, rubbing against the world. And reflecting on what I’d seen — the way the unrevisited past is always looping in your dreams. Memory is a ghost train too. Ages later, you still ponder the beautiful face you once glimpsed in a distant country. Or the sight of a noble tree, or a country road, or a happy table in a café, or some angry boys armed with rusty spears shrieking, “Run you life, dim-dim!” — or the sound of a train at night, sounding that precise musical note of train whistles, a diminished third, into the darkness, as you lie in the train, moving through the world as travelers do, “inside the whale.” Thirty-three years went by. I was then twice as old as the person who had ridden those trains, most of them pulled by steam locomotives, boiling across the hinterland of Turkey and India. I loved the symmetry in the time difference. Time passing had become something serious to me, embodied in the process of my growing old. As a young man I regarded the earth as a fixed and trustworthy thing that would see me into my old age; but older, I began to understand transformation as a natural law, something emotional in an undependable world that was visibly spoiled. It is only with age that you acquire the gift to evaluate decay, the epiphany of Wordsworth, the wisdom of wabi-sabi: nothing is perfect, nothing is complete, nothing lasts.
“Without change there can be no nostalgia,” a friend once said to me, and I realized that what I began to witness was not just change and decay, but imminent extinction. Had my long-ago itinerary changed as much as me? I had the idea of taking the same trip again, traveling in my own footsteps — a serious enterprise, but the sort of trip that younger, opportunistic punks often take to make a book and get famous. (The list is very long and includes travelers’ books in the footsteps of Graham Greene, George Orwell, Robert Louis Stevenson, Leonard Woolf, Joseph Conrad, Mister Kurtz, H. M. Stanley, Leopold Bloom, Saint Paul, Basho, Jesus, and Buddha.) The best of travel seems to exist outside of time, as though the years of travel are not deducted from your life. Travel also holds the magical possibility of reinvention: that you might find a place you love, to begin a new life and never go home. In a distant place no one knows you — nearly always a plus. And you can pretend, in travel, to be different from the person you are, unattached, enigmatic, younger, richer or poorer, anyone you choose to be, the rebirth that many travelers experience if they go far enough.
The decision to return to any early scene in your life is dangerous but irresistible, not as a search for lost time but for the grotesquerie of what happened since. In most cases it is like meeting an old lover years later and hardly recognizing the object of desire in this funny-looking and bruised old fruit. We all live with fantasies of transformation. Live long enough and you see them enacted — the young made old, the road improved, houses where there were once fields; and their opposites, a good school turned into a ruin, a river poisoned, a pond shrunk and filled with trash, and dismal reports: “He’s dead,” “She’s huge,” “She committed suicide,” “He’s now prime minister,” “He’s in jail,” “You can’t go there anymore.” A great satisfaction in growing old — one of many — is assuming the role of a witness to the wobbling of the world and seeing irreversible changes. The downside, besides the tedium of listening to the delusions of the young, is hearing the same hackneyed opinions over and over, not just those of callow youth but, much worse and seemingly criminal, the opinions of even callower people who ought to know better, all the lies about war and fear and progress and the enemy — the world as a wheel of repetition. They — I should say “we” — are bored by things we’ve heard a million times before, books we’ve dismissed, the discoveries that are not new, the proposed solutions that will solve nothing. “I can tell that I am growing old,” says the narrator in Borges’s story “The Congress.” “One unmistakable sign is the fact that I find novelty neither interesting nor surprising, perhaps because I see nothing essentially new in it — it’s little more than timid variations on what’s already been.” Older people are perceived as cynics and misanthropes — but no, they are simply people who have at last heard the still, sad music of humanity played by an inferior rock band howling for fame. Going back and retracing my footsteps — a glib, debunking effort for a shallower, younger, impressionable writer — would be for me a way of seeing who I was, where I went, and what subsequently happened to the places I had seen.
Since I will never write the autobiography I once envisioned — volume one, Who I Was; volume two, I Told You So — writing about travel has become a way of making sense of my life, the nearest I will come to autobiography — as the novel is, the short story, and the essay. As Pedro Almodóvar once remarked, “Anything that is not autobiography is plagiarism.” The thing to avoid while in my own footsteps would be the tedious reminiscences of better days, the twittering of the nostalgia bore, whose message is usually I was there and you weren’t. “I remember when you could get four of those for a dollar.” “There was a big tree in a field where that building is now.” “In my day . . .” Oh, shut up!