Here Theroux recounts his early adventures on an unusual grand continental tour. Asia's fabled trains -- the Orient Express, the Khyber Pass Local, the Frontier Mail, the Golden Arrow to Kuala Lumpur, the Mandalay Express, the Trans-Siberian Express -- are the stars of a journey that takes him on a loop eastbound from London's Victoria Station to Tokyo Central, then back from Japan on the Trans-Siberian. --From publisher's description.
These are the first words of this marvelous travel book. In 1975, just after the fall of Saigon, Theroux decides to board a train in London and take it to Japan, by a southerly route and come back west, via the Trans-Siberian. He not only rides on some fascinating trains, like the Orient Express, the Khyber Pass Local and the Mandalay Express, he stops over in many incredible, and sometimes horrifying locales. We pass through Turkey, India, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Tokyo and the former Soviet Union, to name just a few.
This is not a light glossy travelogue, Theroux takes us to some pretty dark places. There are under-age brothels, drug-dealers, pimps, shady soldiers and sex clubs. His wry observations are spot-on and he never shies away from discussing all the discomforts that come along with this type of travel.
His writing style is lean and fast and even after 35 years, the narrative still remains modern and fresh. I have not read this author in many years and that’s a shame.
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.
Overall, i found the book uneven, though i suppose, honest, as he never tried to wax poetic as perhaps most dreamy travellers are tempted to do when in far-off and strange lands. In moments of inspiration, however, his prose is beautiful, haunting even. But that does not happen often in the book, although I noticed that towards the end, he seemed to have more of those moments, perhaps in anticipation of home.
Though this book was less than what I expected, this hasn't turned me off Theroux. This book showed a lot of his moody, temperamental side, but it had some flashes of really wondrous prose as well. I'd like to think that his other books would have more of that wondrous prose, and less of the attitude.
He strips away all the b.s. and you get the sense that, if you went there, this is what you would see, behind the glossy brochure photos.
Of course I paraphrase; but I give the example because it sums up Theroux, and illustrates why he is such a wonderful travel writer: he gets out and meets people along the way.
I'm a big fan of the Theroux household: Paul for his writing, Louis for his weird weekends and deadpan humour, and Marcel for his command of the Russian language and his general good grace. They seem an extraordinary family. I had read Theroux Sr.'s work before - "The Consul's File" - and I have now become an admirer; for anyone who wants to travel, or enjoys seeing new places and putting up with discomfort as well, there's no better guide.
Many other reviews I have read deride Theroux for what might charitably be described as a poor attitude. It’s certainly true that he often comes across as unsociable, malcontent and overly negative, but given my own travel experiences I can hardly fault him for that, and I think he makes up for it by being amusing and entertaining. The Great Railway Bazaar is probably the best travel book I’ve ever read (not including AA Gill’s, which are compilations of shorter pieces) because I generally find travel books dull or disappointing. Theroux, however, is an actual author with a beautiful prose style and acerbic wit, thus making his observations worth reading. The Great Railway Bazaar, while it didn’t entrance me, held my attention to the very end.
Incidentally, I suspect that a lot of the readers who hate travel writers who criticise and complain have never left the developed world. Not all of them, but a lot. I don’t understand how anyone could actually spend a significant amount of time putting up with the crime, filth and corruption in the developing world, and not forever more be sympathetic to a travel writer who doesn’t paint the earth as an idyllic playground of beautiful cultures.
November 24, 2013
Theroux set out to travel across Asia by train, in 1973. This was before the Iranian revolution, and the Afghan war, and in the brief period when South Vietnam was trying to defend against the North without American troops. Theroux could therefor take a train from Istanbul to Teheran, cross Afghanistan by bus, travel the length of India, through Burma and Malaysia, and in Vietnam. He filled notebooks with his observations, because that was his purpose; to write a book from the train travel. He seems obsessed with sex; travelers describe their experiences, he visit nude bars, and kisses a waitress on the Trans-Siberian express. Theroux paces his tales well, and the itinerary was fascinating, but I did not develop a taste for his other books.