Every lover of travel books should know about Paul Theroux
American author Paul Theroux has spent much of his life in the U.S, though he’s also lived in Great Britain, Singapore, and in Kenya while working in the Peace Corps in the early 1960s. Always working as a writer of some sort, Theroux has been publishing his fiction since the middle 1960s; his first novel was entitled Waldo, published in 1966. But his collections of travel stories catapulted him to literary acclaim and popularity in 1975 when he wrote The Great Railway Bazaar.
Since then, Theroux has traveled to and written about every continent except Antarctica. His writing is intellectual, insightful, colorful and appealing, though his dominant, outspoken and sometimes arrogant nature often manifests itself. He can also seem misanthropic, cynical and, usually, highly critical of the United States. A polyglot, Theroux also seems able to speak just about every language. (In addition to English, Theroux speaks Italian, French, Spanish, Chinese, Chichewa and Swahili.)
Many times Theroux has experienced danger while on his adventures. In the book, The Happy Isles of Oceania, Theroux tells about encountering some natives while kayaking in the Trobriand Islands in Melanesia. At one point, Therox paddles to the shore of an island, where his kayak gets stuck in the mud. Soon, he encounters seven or eight teenage boys wielding spears. The boys approach and begin shouting, “Kill the dim-dim!” (The dim-dim are outsiders.) “Kill him! Kill the dim-dim! Run for your life, dim-dim! Kill him!” Finally, Theroux gets his kayak unstuck and then nervously paddles away without getting a spear stuck in his back.
Theroux is also quick to express opinions that irk some critics, experts or general readers. In his book, Dark Star Safari, he says that foreign aid in Africa has been a complete failure, pointing out that the poor countries there are still dirt poor after decades of handouts.
Also in Dark Star Safari, Theroux writes a firsthand incisive account of the mayhem in Zimbabwe, a country ruined by one man - President Robert Mugabe, the fellow Reverend Desmond Tutu called “bonkers.” Among other acts of stupidity, Mugabe expelled in 1996 white owners of farms without compensation and encouraged untrained peasants and war veterans to take over the property, leading to the collapse of the agricultural business in the country, as well as the injury and deaths of numerous white farmers.
In the book, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar, Theroux writes about his visit to Bangalore, India, where numerous American jobs have been outsourced to young, English speaking Indo-Asians with college degrees who are willing to work at call centers for $2,500 per year, or work as software engineers for $10,000 per year. Theroux said that Bangalore is perhaps the best-known center of cheap, trainable labor in the world.
Also in Ghost Train, Theroux describes the sex trade, legal and otherwise, as he travels through Asia. For instance, on the streets of Hanoi, Vietnam, young women ride motorbikes in search of “customers.” They’ll drive these vehicles up on the sidewalk and cry, “Get on! You want boom-boom? Fotty dolla.” This kind of activity happens often on this trip, whether these “street ladies” are walking, riding or standing still. But Theroux always refuses these offers, as he’s a married man, though his curiosity keeps him talking.
About one particular Vietnamese woman, Vuong Hoa Binh, curator of the Vietnam War Museum, Theroux writes: “The delicacy of her fragile-seeming features – and this seemed true of all Vietnamese women I met – was in great contrast to her powerful spirit and her prompt and appreciative manner. This put me in mind of how thirty years of war, successfully defending their country, had given the Vietnamese unshakable faith in themselves and made them unusually resourceful and alert."
Theroux reminds readers that the United States dropped more tonnage of bombs on Vietnam than on Germany and Japan during World War Two.
Here’s a list of Paul Theroux’s travel books:
Deep South (2015) Theroux journeys to the southeastern U.S., specifically Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas, where he encounters racism, poverty, echoes of the Confederacy, KKK rumors and ghost towns, as well as some friendly people and very pretty scenery.
The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari (2013) Theroux returns to Africa, the scene of many prior adventures. This time he treks through the southwestern part of the continent, avoiding the safe routes, hoping to encounter as many fascinating people as he possibly can.
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar (2008) Theroux retraces the train trip he took across Asia back in 1975, traveling mostly by land from London through Eastern Europe, the Subcontinent, Southeast Asia, Japan and finally Russia.
Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown (2002) The author bisects Africa by moving from the deserts of North Africa to the lush, verdant land of South Africa, at times connecting with people he had known back in the 1960s while working in the Peace Corps.
Pillars of Hercules (1996) A latter-day Odysseus in this one, Theroux takes a voyage around the Mediterranean Sea, starting at the Strait of Gibraltar, the legendary Pillars of Hercules to the ancient Greeks, and ending in Algiers, Algeria.
The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific (1992) The author travels by boat through most of the island groups of the South Pacific – New Zealand and Australia, Melanesia, Polynesia and the Hawaiian Islands, as well as Easter Island, at times paddling alone in his little kayak.
Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China (1988) Beginning in Mongolia, Theroux travels by train (actually an old steam locomotive, not a diesel) through China and ends his trip in the Himalayas of Tibet.
To the Ends of the Earth (1990) contains stories of Theroux’s travels on five continents from the 1970s through the 1980s.
Sunrise with Seamonsters (1985) is a collection of literary essays, travel articles and profiles compiled between 1964 and 1984.
Sailing Through China (1984) is about Theroux’s boat trip along the Yangtze River with a group of millionaires.
The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey Around the Coast of Great Britain (1983) Theroux travels by foot and by rail around the United Kingdom.
The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas (1979) Theroux sojourns all the way through Latin American - from Mexico through the Banana Republics of Central America, and then all the way south to Patagonia in Argentina.
The Great Railway Bazaar (1975) Traveling east on the decrepit Orient Express, Theroux traverses Asia, including Vietnam toward the end of the war, and then comes back by way of the Trans-Siberian Railroad through Soviet Russia.
Theroux travel quotes:
"The realization that he is white in a black country, and respected for it, is the turning point in the expatriate's career. He can either forget it, or capitalize on it. Most choose the latter.”
"You define a good flight by negatives: you didn't get hijacked, you didn't crash, you didn't throw up, you weren't late, you weren't nauseated by the food. So you're grateful."
"Travel is glamorous only in retrospect."
"Extensive traveling induces a feeling of encapsulation, and travel, so broadening at first, contracts the mind.”
“You think of travelers as bold, but our guilty secret is that travel is one of the laziest ways on earth of passing the time.”
“Most travel, and certainly the rewarding kind, involves depending on the kindness of strangers, putting yourself into the hands of people you don’t know and trusting them with your life.”
In an article entitled “The Long Way Home,” included in the September 2009 issue of Smithsonian, Theroux writes about a trip he takes from Los Angeles to Cape Cod. In the second paragraph, he writes, “Travel is mostly about dreams – dreaming of landscapes or cities, imagining yourself in them, murmuring the bewitching place names, and then finding a way to make the dream come true. The dream can also be one that involves hardship, slogging through a forest, paddling down a river, confronting suspicious people, living in a hostile place, testing your adaptability, hoping for some sort of revelation. All my traveling life, 40 years of peregrinating Africa, Asia, South America and Oceania, I have thought constantly of home – and especially of the America I had never seen.”
Well, now he’s seen it!
So, has Paul Theroux been everywhere? Simply put, if he hasn’t gone there, it probably isn’t worth going to! Or he simply hasn’t gotten around to going there. So, if he hasn’t gone where you want him to go, just kick back and wait for his next travel book. But the wait will definitely be worth it!
Please buy a book by Paul Theroux
© 2009 Kelley Marks
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on April 24, 2011:
Hey, balihq, I haven't read any of Theroux's short story collections. There is something I need to do one of these days. Later!
balihq on April 24, 2011:
I love his books, especially the short story collections.