The Great Railway Bazaar – Paul Theroux

I am far, far behind on the ratio of travel books I have read to blaghs I have posted about them. Consider this an attempt at beginning to catch up.

This week (lie–it was three+ weeks ago), I chewed through Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar. Yes, “chewed” is the best word I have to describe the experience.

I had been looking forward to reading this book. Theroux is a travel writer I had yet to pick up, but he has a sizable catalog and I was hoping that I’d enjoy TGRB so much that I’d be inspired to pick up his entire catalog and sit on a patio somewhere, sipping a mocha, devouring them all.

It was not to be.

I did not want to use this area to criticize books for anything other than my own education, but this book got under my skin like an aggressive parasite.

Though I have not read as broadly in the travel genre as I should have (and am currently in the process of rectifying that), one of the beliefs I hold solidly onto is that the author of any given travel book is your travel companion. You, the reader, are sitting beside them in the passenger seat, totally at their whim.

So, hopefully, you like them. You want to hear their thoughts. You’re interested in their knowledge and insights. If they start talking about childhood memories, you’re intrigued and excited to get to know more about this person you’re stuck with (should you choose to finish the book) for the next two to four hundred pages.

Ideally, you shouldn’t hate them.

I mean, we’ve all been there–we’re on a ten hour flight to wherever and we’re stuck next to someone who will not stop talking about their horrible skin fungus and how it impacts their sex life. Or, as has actually happened to me, you wind up next to a lady on a six hour flight (a red-eye, nonetheless) who spends the entire six goddamned hours bitching about how the flight was delayed an hour and a half.

You keep thinking that eventually she’ll fall asleep or give up on her ranting…


Enter Paul Theroux.

Yes, this book was written in the 1970s, so you can expect a higher level of blatant racism than one who experience in your modern travelogue. You can expect an elitism, an “America-Knows-And-Does-Best-And-As-An-America-I-Also-Know-And-Do-Best.”

Theroux embodies this. For the first three-quarters of the book, traveling with Theroux is an odyssey of suffering, both his (when his rail car isn’t as nice as he wanted) and yours (when he won’t stop talking about what his rail car lacks).

The Great Railway Bazaar is Theroux’s (mostly) rail journey from London to Japan. He stops in various countries along the way, complains about said country’s people, complains about said country’s government, attempts to find food in said country, and then makes fun of whoever he encounters who suffers from the misfortune of not being him.

But those are the intermissions.

The backbone of this novel, as I have alluded to, is Theroux moving from one comfortable rail car to another and heaven help the reader if the rail car he lands in is not to his liking (which is often) or, even worse, when the rail car is to his liking but he has to share it with someone.

This could have taken on a possibly pleasant Bill Brysonesque haplessness, but because of Theroux’s mocking of anyone who does not share his beliefs, lifestyle, and so on, the book rapidly comes to read as if one’s racist grandpa has come to Thanksgiving dinner and is now sloshed on G&Ts and regaling the table with stories from his trip to “uncivilized” India and “the darkest Peru.”

On Iranians:

“Money pulls the Iranian in one direction, religion drags him in another, and the result is a stupid starved creature for whom woman is only meat.”

On Afghanistam:

“Afghanistan is a nuisance. Formerly it was cheap and barbarous, and people went there to buy lumps of hashish and they would spend weeks in the filthy hotels of Herat and Kabul, staying high.”

On India:

“In Calcutta, rickshaws, pulled by skinny running men in tattered clothes, are a necessary form of transport, cheap, and easy to steer in narrow back lanes. They are a crude symbol of Indian society, but in India all symbols are crude[…]”

On Vietnamese generosity:

“It was almost shameful to accept it, for it had its origins in the same plan a company develops when it cynically mounts a campaign to popularize an unsuccessful product. It distorted the actual. But I reserved my scorn: the Vietnamese had inherited cumbersome and expensive habits of wastefulness.”

On Vietnamese hope in the middle of the Vietnam War:

“For the Vietnamese citizen the rest of the world is simple and peaceful; he has the egoism of a sick man, who believes he is the only unlucky sufferer in a healthy world.”

On Japanese performance:

“So far on this trip I had managed to avoid those so-called cultural evenings during which one was held captive in a hot room to applaud the degenerate spectacle of dancers and singers in feathers and beads performing numbers whose badness asked to be excused on the grounds it was traditional.”

On Japanese morning exercises:

“The Japanese had made these instruments [recordings of exercise instructions, often played over a loudspeaker at certain times of day], given them voices, and put them in charge. Now, obeying the lights and the sound, the Japanese aspired to them, flexing their little muscles, kicking their little feet, wagging their little heads, like flawed clockwork toys performing for a powerful unforgiving machine that would one day wear them out.

These catch-all phrasings, taking an incident with one man and applying a behavior, thought, or interpretation of a behavior to an entire race was jarring to me as a reader. It reminded me of my grandfather’s geography book, Fry’s Introductory Geography, 1900.

It opens as thus:

“This book tells a story about the earth,–the great ball of land and water on which we live.

“After studying that part of the earth which is near our school, we shall visit the homes of girls and boys in other lands.

“We shall see little yellow people feeding silkworms and picking leaves from tea plants.

“The Arab boy will show us his father’s camels and horses, and will tell us about the great desert that spreads round his home.

“In the land of the brown people we shall find groves of spice, and shall see the brown girls weaving pretty baskets.”

Reading that opening when I was twelve or so left me with a horrible feeling, one that never left me. I’ve yet to forget these lines, over twenty years later.

Reading The Great Railway Bazaar often gave me that same feeling–the dehumanizing of individuals to make an easily summarized whole for even easier consumption.

I wasn’t expecting to find that, not from an accomplished travel writer like Theroux.

Other notes:

  • There are repeated conversations and thoughts about sex. Sex, as a topic, I do not mind, but the way Theroux approaches it and thinks about it makes it seem all sorts of wrong. (Also, the book–which early on mentions his wife–ends shortly after he has a smooching session with a train employee he had been eyeing for most of the ride. I can only assume that his wife is okay with this, as he chose to publish said smooch session. However, her consent or apathy about his behaviors is never mentioned, which left me–the reader–with even more feelings of distaste drifting in Theroux’s direction.)
  • In one scene, Theroux interviews a yogi, then proceeds to have an internal dialogue mocking the yogi’s beliefs. It’s incredibly tasteless.
  • All this being said, Theroux is not a bad writer. He’s a fine writer. But as a travel companion, he leaves so very much to be desired.

In sum:

There is a certainty about Theroux and how he approaches the world. That certainty, for some readers, can be incredibly reassuring. It tells them that they are in the company of a Man Who Knows Things. Not only that, but if they share the bulk of his beliefs, then they have those beliefs supported by a Man Who Knows Things. He legitimizes their thoughts and feelings without suggesting any examination. It’s as if he is saying, “Go forth, unquestioning of yourself or the world.”

As you may be able to tell from the length of my notes on The Great Railway Bazaar, it made an intense impression on me. It’s not a book I would want to read again, nor would I want to read any of his other work. But it did leave an impact. I will remember it.

I suppose that’s better than being forgotten.

Also, should you wish to read more about Theroux and his more recent work, I found this lovely article over at New Republic that speaks on it rather well.