The Great Railway Bazaar

The Great Railway Bazaar - Paul Theroux I’m told this is a benchmark in travel literature, a must read, but I couldn’t honestly rate this even three stars. It’s the kind of book that instead of causing you to yearn to see new places makes you want to stay at home. The book would seem to have all the ingredients of a classic; in print after 38 years, this is the account of Theroux’s travels by rail across Asia in the mid seventies, beginning with the Orient Express. Each chapter is named after a train taken: The Orient Express Direct, The Mandalay Express, Golden Arrow to Kuala, Trans-Siberian Express, etc. Theroux can write beautifully, lyrically. Look, for instance, at the opening of the book: Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it. Those whistles sing bewitchment: railways are irresistible bazaars, snaking along perfectly level no matter what the landscape, improving your mood with speed, and never upsetting your drink. The train can reassure you in awful places--a far cry from the anxious sweats of doom airplanes inspire, or the nauseating gas-sickness of the long-distance bus, or the paralysis that afflicts the car passenger. If a train is large and comfortable you don’t even need a destination; a corner seat is enough, and you can be one of those travelers who stay in motion, straddling the tracks, and never arrive or feel they out to--like that lucky man who lives on Italian Railways because he is retired and has a free pass. Better to go first class than to arrive, or, as the English novelist Michael Frayn once rephrased McLuhan: “The journey is the goal.” Ah, elegant prose, an erudite man who kept a journal and so can write with the immediacy of a novel, a promise of adventure through railways of legend, and an eye and ear for incisively describing character. What’s not to love? Yet I soon felt an urge to skim. It was often depressing, this narrative filled with accounts of corruption, begging, prostitution, drug addiction and the just plain crass. (I really could have done without the long, involved graphic description of people defecating along the tracks.) Maybe it’s just that I’m reading Theroux at the tail end of a list of recommended travel books and I can’t help but compare him to other writers I encountered. Bill Bryson was often laugh-out-loud funny; John McPhee had a genius for eliciting from others stories that seemed to sum up a place; Rory Stewart exuded openness and genuine interest in the people he encountered. And though I had my issues with books by Pico Iyer and Elizabeth Gilbert, both in different ways showed compassion for the people they encountered and saw them as... well, human. Theroux, on the other hand, struck me at times, if not racist or xenophobic, then maybe just plain misanthropic: “Afghans are lazy, idle, and violent.” "I always found myself in the company of Australians, who were like a reminder that I'd touched bottom." Russians he often called monkeys. His snobby horror at the very idea of riding in third class was unbelievable, and his behavior in Japan was so very rude I wished I could apologize on behalf of all Americans. (Really--don’t ask.) I rarely found in his account of drinking and whoring and peering at the landscape rushing past in trains any fresh insight or moving story. The one exception actually was his two chapters about visiting Vietnam in 1973 after the withdrawal of the Americans but before the South fell to the communists. Those chapters had a poignancy, vivid, memorable detail and Vietnam seemingly evoked a rare empathy in him missing in the other chapters. By itself those chapters redeemed the book enough to tempt me into giving it a third star. But in the end, at least for me, when it comes to a good travel book I prefer a less obnoxious companion, and I doubt I’ll read another book by this author.