Meeting Paul Theroux
Sometime in 2001, I discovered my mother’s copy of The Great Railway Bazaar. It was an old Penguin edition, hiding on her bookshelf outside my parents’ room. Many of the pages had their edges folded down and because the cover looked worn and tired, I assumed that it was a good read, so I took it. I loved it that the writer had travelled by rail from London to Singapore, but what I remembered most was his name — Paul Theroux.
At a bookstore a few months later, I saw the same name on another book. This one was called Riding The Iron Rooster and it was about Theroux’s travels in China, once again by rail. This guy obviously likes trains, I thought. That was back then.
Last month, two years after I re-read The Great Railway Bazaar, I met Paul Theroux. I told him how his books had moved me to start travelling overland by train.
For someone who has been described in interviews as a grumpy misanthrope, 73-year-old Theroux was very pleasant, almost chatty. On the weekend that I met him, he told a packed hall at the Singapore Writers’ Festival how he had always dreamt of leaving home and seeing the world as a child.
“There were seven children in my family. Our house was full and the concept of a big, happy family was lost to me. I just wanted to go away,” he said.
The 1960s were a strong influence.
“I kept seeing people questioning authority, breaking away from convention, and I identified with them. There was a wave of discontent in the United States concerning the Vietnam War and at about the same time, there was the Cultural Revolution in China. I realised then that I needed to see things as they were, to see the world for myself.”
In 1963, Theroux joined the Peace Corps and became a teacher, first in Malawi, then Uganda. After spending six years in Africa, he joined the English Department at the National University of Singapore in 1968. He didn’t stay long. Anyone who has been following Theroux will have read about how he famously fell out of favour with NUS and had to leave after the university didn’t renew his contract.
In 1972, together with his first wife and two sons, he moved to England. It was in London that he got the idea of a long train journey.
“I was looking at a map of the world one day when it dawned on me that I could take a train from Victoria Station, take another train and another, and end up in Afghanistan. That was also when I realised that I had run out of ideas for my books and that if I were to describe things or places as they are, I would need to see them with my own eyes.”
The Great Railway Bazaar, published in 1975, is considered a classic in travel writing, but not everyone who has read it has good things to say. Readers have criticised Theroux for writing about how annoying his fellow passengers were, and describing how overcrowded, dirty and smelly the trains were. For these reasons, Theroux has been called “stupid”, “miserable” and “mean”.
Readers and reviewers who call him names probably don’t realise that travel books aren’t fairy tales. Travel writing isn’t meant to be about shiny, happy places with rainbows and bunny rabbits. The people you meet on your travels aren’t always good-looking, well-dressed specimens with impeccable manners. In life, there are such things as dirty trains, scammers and cheats and any travel writer worth his salt will describe things as they are.
People who read travel books expecting to be mesmerised and transported to a magical place where everything smells like roses and goes according to plan will be in for a rude shock.
Travel books work differently from other forms of travel writing. As far as I see it, the objectives of most travel magazines are to promote travel and paint a beautiful picture of the world. The idea is to convince readers that a destination is a variety of things, but always something positive: it’s beautiful, fascinating, awe-inspiring, mysterious, mind-blowing, and therefore a must-see. Travel books don’t work that way- they tell a story about a place, whether it has a good or bad ending, like it or not. I’ll be honest and say that I would love to see more travel articles and travel blogs telling stories with good and bad endings.
I met Theroux twice at the writers’ festival and on both occasions, I was able to talk to him about travel, trains and books. If you love his writing and have always been curious about him, he was nothing like the bad-tempered person he has been described as. Could it be due to age? An eagerness to be seen in a different light? I don’t know, but he certainly took the time to chat and listen to everyone who went up to him.
When asked about future trips, Theroux mentioned his family. “I would love to take a road trip with my sons. The books are just books — they go their own way and maybe they’ll do something, but my children are my real achievement.”
You can’t stay mean and grumpy forever, I guess.
© 2014, Anis. All rights reserved.