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Sunday, 16 January 2022

Paul Theroux: The Great Railway Bazaar

Paul Theroux:
The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia (5*)

In 1973, Paul Theroux set off alone by train from London to Tokyo, taking numerous side-tracks along the route. But this is not so much a book about the countries he passes through, it is more an account of his experiences and emotional states. He does not seem to have enjoyed it much. Neither would I. It was what walkers call a Type 2 experience: you enjoy the telling of it afterwards. Like my Iceland saga?

He meets lots of strange characters along the way. I knew it was going to be entertaining when he introduces the first, Duffill, who carries his luggage in paper parcels. They board the Orient Express. Duffill takes a top bunk. Theroux struggles to sleep beneath. 

And then something else alarmed me: it was a glowing circle, the luminous dial of Duffill’s watch, for his arm had slipped down and was swinging back and forth as the train rocked, moving this glowing green dial past my face like a pendulum.. (p24)
The great thing for a writer of this kind of travelogue is that once they have done with a character they can simply get rid of them. Duffill gets accidentally left behind on an Italian station platform and Theroux hands over his parcels to an official at Venice.

For me, though, the book truly comes alive when Theroux reaches Pakistan. Crossing Iran, he seems depressed by the landscape, the most infertile soil he has ever seen. Afghanistan is “a nuisance”, expensive and barbarous, which even the hippies have begun to find “intolerable”, and where “the food smells of cholera”. He passes over it by plane, with only a brief, joyless stay in Kabul (p87-88). His mood then lifts as he descends through the Khyber Pass to Peshawar on a local train.

From there, he goes south by train to Ceylon, then back to Calcutta, flies to Bangkok, takes the train to Singapore, which he detests, and spends some time in war-ravaged Viet Nam just months after the American withdrawal, where he is astonished by the country’s beauty (I am using place names as they were in 1973). He then flies to Japan (the tracks through Hanoi and China being closed) and takes a prurient interest in the Japanese taste for bloodthirsty eroticism. He returns on the Trans-Siberian Railway without getting off, depressed again because of the Japanese people, the sea-crossing to Vladivostok, the cold and dark, the bleak settlements, the never-ending portraits of Lenin and four months of travel.  

I loved his description of the remote, imagination-catching Gokteik railway viaduct in Northern Burma, built in 1899 to expand the influence of the British Empire in the region: 

... a monster of silver geometry in all the ragged rock and jungle … bizarre, this manmade thing in so remote a place, competing with the grandeur of the enormous gorge and yet seeming more grand than its surroundings … the water rushing through the girder legs and falling on the tops of trees. (p230).

Memories of British dominion are everywhere. One eighty year-old tells his life story of starting as a cook in the Royal Artillery officers’ mess and ending up praised in person by the likes of Field Marshall Slim and Chiang Kai-shek (p215), almost like a Burmese version of the butler Stevens in The Remains of the Day.

Theroux also encounters the inevitable hippies and commercial travellers in all kinds of unlikely goods: seamless tubes, plastic washers, bleaching agents and rubber casings for lugged sprockets (p158). He sees so much poverty: people crouching by the side of the railway to defecate, children who raid the train at stops to steal water from the toilet compartment, Singhalese living in ramshackle huts with an acute shortage of food.

I am reminded of George Orwell’s point in The Road to Wigan Pier, that our comfortable English lives are the legacy of a hundred million Indians living on the verge of starvation (p148). It has been estimated that, over the course of two hundred years, the British extracted £45 trillion out of India at present day prices.* That’s a million pounds for each person living in Britain at the time. It remains all around in the infrastructure, institutions, artefacts and systems you see, and in the shipwrecks and shrapnel scattered further afield.

I am also reminded of Ted Simon’s books about his trips around the world on motorbikes, the first around the same time Theroux was on the train, in which he fears that when the countless millions see what we have and they don’t, “there probably will be hell to pay”.

They’ve seen it now. 


*George Monbiot, The Guardian, 30th October, 2021.

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

35 comments:

  1. One of my favourite travel writers who understands long distance train journeys and what they are all about. His observation of the people you encounter as well as the geography and history of a place combined with the everyday facts and smallest details, if appropriate, of the lives of others in foreign lands on foreign journeys is second to none. I have read this book more than once and all the rest of his travel books.

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    1. It's a great book. It was your mention of it some months ago that led me to pick it out of my late mother-in-law's books. I will probably look for some of his other writing.

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  2. It sounds wonderful. I love travelling to places by book form. The hippies in Afghanistan sound really interesting. Thanks for telling us about the book.

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    1. It's a good journey to read about, as is Ted Simon's "Jupiter's Travels" mentioned in passing at the end. Hippies crop up at various points in the book. Theroux doesn't think much of them.

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  3. I can't imagine visiting Viet Nam at that time. I wonder how easy it was for him to access the country.
    An aside: One of Theroux's nephews is a somewhat popular actor here in the states. Interestingly, he pronounces his surname as if it were spelled 'Thoreau'.

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    1. He didn't seem to have much difficulty getting there, although being there sounded potentially very dangerous.

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  4. I loved the 1986 movie "The Mosquito Coast" based on the novel of the same name by Paul Theroux, so I attempted to read the novel. It was unreadable, IMHO. I've never attempted another one of his books. Glad you enjoyed this one though. The wealth of all nations and people was looted from the poor and the indigenous around the world. We pretend not to know that.

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    1. I found this quite readable. As Rachel comments above, he does have an eye for strange details and in places he is quite amusing. The quote from Orwell came back to me hard whilst I was reading it, and I then remembered the Ted Simon books. I don't agree with recent arguments for reparations, though. Exploitation has always been the way of the world.

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    2. I'm not sure that saying 'exploitation has always been the way of the world ' gets us off the hook. Though going down the reparations route is a minefield. I used to read a lot of Paul Theroux along with Eric Newby and others. I like Louis Theroux too

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  5. I've read one of his books, I think called 'Riding the Iron Rooster' where he caught trains in China? I enjoyed it and I liked his writing style.

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    1. Thanks for the tip. That might be one I'll look at some time.

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    2. It is, I think, one of the best. I have read it so many times I know chunks of it off by heart.

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  6. You can't beat Paul Theroux on travel in my opinion except maybe Leigh Fermor - I love a good travel book and have not read this one.

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    1. I hadn't previously read anything by Paul Theroux but I'll look out for others. It must have seemed an incredibly original way to write about travel in the seventies.

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  7. Thank you! I've only read one Theroux. I must rectify that.

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  8. I don't think I have ever read any book by Theroux. You make it sound interesting enough, but I still think I'll pass this one.
    What amazes me is that he did not care at all for Kabul. From what I know from other books, Kabul was a great place to be in the 1970s, full of progress and people as much in love with fashion, music and cars as in any big metropolis around the world.

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    1. I think what he wrote is based more on how he felt than objective judgement of the places he visited. By the sound of it, crossing Turkey and Iran by train would put anyone in a negative mood.

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  9. It sounds a good book for those who take too travel My first question is always how do they pay for these long holidays, is it the book written at the end? Journals of travel are excellent for looking back through history I think.

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    1. He was already an established writer and novelist, so presumably an advance from the publisher funded it. It certainly does capture the world in the nineteen-seventies, before the great globalisation. I intended the bit a the end to hint at some of the changes since.

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  10. I went to see Bong Joon-Ho's film *Parasite* (2019) with a friend and afterwards she said: *What I got from it is that the world will not end well.*
    I get the same from any Theroux book, a kind of relief in its way.
    God save us from Utopias and Tony Blair.

    His witty, and one would have thought harmless novel, *Saint Jack* (filmed with Ben Gazzara) was banned in Singapore for thirty years.
    Theroux must be dreaded by PR consultants (fantasists) and Spin Doctors (fascists) who filter our news. He will be Cancelled by the Woke mob.

    His recent books on Africa, *The Last Train to Zona Verde* and *Dark Star Safari* were Heart of Darkness journeys.
    Who among us would endure the shit and sickness Theroux did?
    He enjoys it.
    How else would he get to practice his penetrating eye for societies too corrupt to be governed? We're heading that way in Blighty.
    He learned from V.S. Naipaul and was unfriended by him.
    See *Paul Theroux interview (1988)* Manufacturing Intellect* YouTube.

    He has moved far away from Conradian novels like *The Family Arsenal* and *The Mosquito Coast* to pitiless autofiction, *The Lower River* and *Motherland*.
    He keeps geese on Cape Cod and is still unpredictable.

    He is the best writer in the language and deserved the Nobel more than a few one could name.
    The Swedish Academy regard him as a brilliant journalist, the best epitaph any writer could ask for.

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    1. Thanks for the extra evaluation of the writer. In this book he does put the boot into both Singapore and Japan. Russia as well. Does he really enjoy it? Perhaps what I said about Type 2 experiences sums it up.

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    2. I shall adopt your Type 2 experience into my vocabulary, Tasker.

      Edinburgh on a humind Saturday (before lockdown) was only tolerable because I kept to George Street, Queen Street and the National Portrait Gallery (great place for coffee) and then downhill to Stockbridge, good for pubs and restaurants.

      The next day I savoured the memory of it, even ghastly Princes Street, and a pretty young tourist who gave me her best smile in Frederick Street.

      Nothing beats Theroux putting the boot in, does it?

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  11. Your last point about the money and resources the British extracted from India is especially powerful. A lot of people don't understand the ravages of colonialism or think of it as a problem of the past -- but its legacy persists even now. (And certainly in 1973, when Theroux wrote his book.)

    I haven't read this, but I'm intrigued. Maybe I'll try it. He had a thing for trains, didn't he? I seem to remember he wrote several train-focused books.

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    1. Yes our standard of living today is still based on the profits of colonialism - half the buildings and infrastructure in London for example. But previously, the Romans, Vikings and Normans took from us. It's how the wicked world is.
      Rachel mentions another train book above which she thinks even better.

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  12. Paul Theroux has always been a great observer of his surroundings. I read this book so long ago that I had forgotten most of the details.

    I often bristle at accusatory references to how "the British" milked the Empire. Was it "the British" or just some of "the British". What about the coal miners who lived in tiny houses north of Barnsley or the trawlermen and their families who lived off Hessle Road in Hull or the agricultural workers who struggled to buy shoes for their children? These people were "the British" too and they knew very well what exploitation meant in practice.

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    1. A point well made which crossed my mind while writing that last bit, and it still goes on with the pretence of "levelling up" the north of England and so on. Not everyone was involved of course, many of my ancestors never went far beyond the village they lived in, but as a country, all enjoyed the benefits to some extent, such as in the railways, the legal system, civic buildings and so on. One might argue that these structures were put in place mainly as capitalist investments to further the exploitation of others, just as money from some colonies was "invested" in less "developed" colonies.

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  13. I discovered Theroux through this book back in the 70's, presumably shortly after it was published. I enjoyed it and read several more of his books before I began tiring of his critical attitude about seemingly everything. Still I think he is a good writer and certainly a brave traveler. I enjoyed your review, Mr. Dunham.

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    1. Thank you. Many of the books I am now reading are ones I should have read a long time ago but didn't because for many years I read only work-related books. Theroux would probably not be a travelling companion of choice because, as you say, although a great observer of life, he does moan a lot.

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  14. As you gave it a 5* = wonderful, I might read it, Tasker - I put it on my list - though I have two tough huge books in Dutch to read, both more than 500 pages thick, and not easy in language or content.
    Travels by train sound so romantic - though I only dream of The Flying Scotsman and the Orient Express - both luxury travels. And of thus I almost (!) might become ashamed when I am reminded how exploited people are in so many countries.
    And maybe a luxury train travel might be as dull as travelling on a cruise ship - I never have done that - and maybe The Flying Scotsman without the luxury is -as I know: possible - and maybe more adventurous.
    In trains I met so many interesting people!
    (Now masks forbid those wonderful interesting long chats).

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    1. It is wonderful. I read it around November and have only just written it up. Since, I've had a large first draft of a manuscript manuscript to read and comment upon for a friend and have read nothing else. It's hard going, although when it eventually gets into shape it will be a cracker of a story. At least it's in English. I envy anyone who can read books in several languages.

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  15. Not something I would ever read. I like easy to get through fiction. Not much depth in my mind.

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    1. I go through phases of reading more challenging things and then reading easier things. A few months ago it was James Bond and science fiction.

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  16. I read this yearss ago and was blown away by it as I am by all his books - I think it is somewhere on my shelves - must read it again now you have nudged me.

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    1. It was first time for me but if there's nothing better around I might read it again.

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