The Great Railway Bazaar

By Paul Theroux

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I don’t think I’ve ever written about a travel book here.

Which is not to say that I don’t read travel books – I do, and I really love some. But, as a genre, travel writing is tricky – there are many potential pitfalls, and the genre itself only appeals to a small percentage of readers. This is understandable to me: if you don’t care about travel, then why read about someone else doing it? And if you do care about travel, why would you read about someone else doing it when you could simply do it yourself?

There is the additional problem that “travel writing” has changed dramatically with the advent of travel blogs. And, look, the genre wasn’t perfect before: it was almost exclusively cranky white male writers, swerving from place to place, getting drunk and sneering at the locals. There is often a racist tinge to the observations made (if not forthrightly expressed racism), and many travel books are really just glorified memoirs of middle-aged ennui.

But the genre has not been helped in any way, shape, or form by the proliferation of the modern travel blog, which is as execrable a form as I’ve ever encountered. If the classics of travel writing are navel-gazing memoirs of aging white guys, the travel blog is the fatuous spewing of indiscriminate and totally uncredentialed millennials: people too insubstantial to hold a job, paid by the Instagram post, gushing patronizing about local color and custom with a tone so condescending that it is barely less racist than the older prose model. All, also, white.

So, ok, I don’t write about travel writing. But I would like to talk today about one book – really, one author – because I love him. And I don’t love him because he’s perfect, or because he doesn’t fall into any of the traps of his genre (he does). I love him because he is mean.

Paul Theroux, I believe, identifies primarily as a novelist, but he is more famous as a travel writer (indeed, he perhaps the most famous travel writer alive). He has published something like twenty travel books in his life. I have not read them all, but I have read a substantial fraction. They possess a certain uniformity: Theroux meanders from place to place, all over the world, peering around him with his gimlet eye, often grouchy but occasionally enchanted, always alone and yet somehow unendingly entangled with the locals.

I’ve loved Theroux since I read ‘Riding the Iron Rooster‘ when I was a teenager. That book changed my life – it is why I went to Asia for the first time. It is why I took the Trans-Siberian – it is why, when I went to China, I took trains between cities, and not planes. ‘The Great Railway Bazaar‘ is about a different journey Theroux took by train through Asia in the early 1970’s. And perhaps that doesn’t sound promising to you – I’m the wrong person to ask: I love Asia, I love trains, and I love mean people.

And Theroux is wonderfully mean. But not in a directed, hostile, agentive way – rather, he is casually, undogmatically malicious, and I love that about him. There is something deeply honest about his descriptions of the world: Theroux would never pretend to love a place to promote it on Insta. Much of the world is shitty – ugly places inhabited by cretinous individuals – and he calls it so. This willingness to snipe has two effects: 1. When he says something is wonderful, I believe him; and 2. His writing is funny in the way only meanness can be.

I can hear people howling that watching a white guy wander around the world being mean about everything isn’t amusing or wonderful. Fair enough – but let me try to explain. Meanness, like anything sharp, must be handled with care, but it is not without its uses and benefits. The truth is, every society has its nastinesses, its ridiculousness, pettinesses and absurdities, individual and yet universal. And if we don’t acknowledge them, it doesn’t mean anything when we praise what isn’t nasty, ridiculous, petty or absurd. Meanness can be gratuitous, but it can also be honest, and it takes a steady hand to navigate the difference.

Let me see if I can provide a few examples.

In Siberia:

“Bruce and Jeff, the Australians in the upper bunks, were nervous about going to Siberia. Anders, a young Swede carbuncular, with one of those unthawed Scandinavian faces that speaks of sexual smugness and a famished imagination, was in the bunk opposite. He listened to the Australians, and when he said, “Hey, I hear it’s cold in Siberia,” I knew it would be a rough crossing.” (p. 304)

On Vietnam:

Paul Theroux (a long time ago)

“There were really two selling points, the beaches and the war. But the war was still on, in spite of the fact that nowhere in the forty-four-page booklet entitled Visit Viet-Nam was fighting mentioned, except the oblique statement, “English is making rapid progress under the pressure of contemporary events,'” (p. 244)

Or perhaps my favorite single observation in the entire book:

“‘I am in Istanbul two years before,’ said the French woman, wincing in the way the French do before lapsing into their own language.” (p. 11)

Theroux, after all these years, has a very steady hand. He is mean, but without anger. He has contempt not for whole cultures or peoples, but for individual small and stupid people within them, and for the havoc they wreak on the world. And the world itself he overwhelmingly finds fascinating, broad and surprising.

I don’t think Theroux is a cruel man – these are not cruel quotes. Rather, he has a gift for spotting and summarizing the absurd. He is a hard-minded man who has found an unusual balance between curiosity and skepticism. I don’t think I would love someone who was just cruel. And Theroux is much too dedicated a traveller to be motivated entirely, or even primarily, by animus. He is as dedicated and brave a traveller as there is – no one wanders so long, so far, just to meet people upon whom they look down.

I wanted to write about Theroux’s travel books at least once, here, because I am grateful to him, in the way that I am grateful to all authors who have changed my life. He made the world bigger for me, and he made me laugh, and I’d like to thank him.

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