This piece was first published in July 2014.
Almost forty years after its publication, Paul Theroux’s narrative of a train trip from Europe to Japan, The Great Railway Bazaar, is still bandied about Goodreads and NPR summer reading specials as an essential travelogue, which cuts through the wide-eyed innocence and humane goodwill that characterized the generation of travel writers before Theroux, like Patrick Leigh Fermor, taking its cutting tone and realism from Theroux’s cantankerous Cape Cod disposition and air of privilege. As is often the case with important books, those who criticize The Great Railway Bazaar do so for exactly the same reasons its supporters praise it—Theroux never withholds judgment as he steams his way through some of the most economically depressed regions in Asia, allowing his first impressions, favorable or no, thorough ventilation. He is particularly grumpy when forced to take third-class cars and share them with the lowest-paying customers:
“…I thought of them with pure horror. I knew the occupants: there was a bandy-legged gang of dark Japanese with bristly hair who traveled with a dwarf squaw, also Japanese, whose camera on a thong around her neck bumped her knees.
Theroux’s prose is so fluid that even his brutality is elegant. In fact, it is his most morally questionable moments that leave us most in awe, as if we were standing next to someone at a party who was willing to say every mean-spirited thing we were silently thinking, and who could do so with such an Orwellian bite it seemed to validate our cruelty.
The debate about whether Theroux’s racist generalizations are justified by the vividness of their expression has raged for forty years—it is the substance of the book’s fame. A contemporary reviewer for the New York Times wrote that we should love Theroux because “irony is essential, for living as well as for writing,” a point far too vague to be provable, but which captures the language a reader might use, internally, to justify the voyeuristic pleasure of watching Theroux call an elderly Japanese woman a squaw, or grumble that to him, sharing a car with Australians was “like a reminder that I’d touched bottom.” It is the inverse of the pleasure we feel watching a former slave blow the kneecaps off his old captors with a revolver at the end of Django Unchained, a brutality that thrills us precisely because the perpetrator hasn’t earned the right to treat anyone this way. We love Theroux because he is the traveler we would be without any restraint after a month of day drinking.
Less often written about is The Great Railway Bazaar’s war with narrative. Unlike Fermor’s genre-establishing A Time of Gifts, Theroux’s traveling yarn makes no attempt to novelize itself: interesting characters are noted, expanded upon, then abruptly abandoned at some midnight station, themes contemplated heavily for chapters at a stretch are forgotten once the landscape changes, and most notably, human interaction is purposefully avoided. Theroux’s ideal travel is not wading the colorful crowds of a Bazaar, but a carefully curated solitude. He is at his best when the cultures he set out to experience can be viewed from behind a first-class cabin window:
“…I preferred to travel for two or three days, reading, eating in the dining car, sleeping after lunch, and bringing my journal up to date in the early evening before having my first drink and deciding where we were on my map…I traveled easily in two directions, along the level rails while Asia flashed changes at the window, and at the interior rim of a private world of memory and language.”
When the inevitabilities of international train travel interrupt that private world, the narratives are a scattershot mix of geographic sketches, armchair cultural criticism, and arguments with train conductors, almost all fascinating, and in no order but the chronological. It is a bare, shameless sequence of events and feelings set down just as they arose, not polished for pace or political correctness, often strenuous to read, and the philosophical import of it is its steady, subtle insistence that even our most vivid experiences are much less meaningful that we often hope, an observation just as brutal as Theroux’s race-tinged aphorisms, and which hums in the background of the book relentlessly, like the muffled sound of wheels.
The frustration of Theroux’s apparent aimlessness is his point: this is not the optimistic lark of a veteran from the greatest generation, but its late-century follow up, a tour of colonialism’s ruins and the backwaters left behind by the collapse of the longform tourism industry epitomized by The Orient Express. Yet the book is not without its profundity, or its narrative flares in the dark—there are passages where Theroux’s nitpicky preferences and the cities he visits align, and a breath of the old, innocent traveler’s thrill sweeps through:
“We were still at the siding at Jaipur Junction. I lay in my berth…read a few pages of The Autobiography of a Yogi, then fell asleep. I was awakened at half-past twelve by a bump: my bogie’s being coupled to the Delhi Mail. All night the train rocked and clicked towards Delhi, while I slumbered in my cool room, and I was so refreshed on arriving that I decided to…see if, as my map said—though everyone claimed it was impossible—I could take a train to Ceylon.”
This story about trains is summed up best by what trains do at night in Theroux’s sleepy stations: shunting. The train backs up and adds a car—at once a reversal and a gain. So too with the book itself. We feel the reversal when Theroux refuses to novelize, when a rickshaw driver in Madras advertises an English prostitute, and he risks his neck rummaging through blacked out slums in search of a “…situation that attracted me. An English girl in Madras, whoring for peanuts…what had brought her to the godforsaken place?” Yet when he doesn’t find her, and ends up in the inevitable Indian brothel surrounded by giggling poor girls, he leaves casually, without dropping a dime, uninterested in these non-English narratives and observing only that none of the girls “could have been older than fifteen.”
The gain is in Theroux’s language. His epithets make The Great Railway Bazaar worth the price of admission, like this one about the passengers boarding India’s Grand Trunk Express:
“There were grand trunks all over the platform. I had never seen such heaps of belongings in my life, or so many laden people: they were like evacuees who had been given time to pack, lazily fleeing an ambiguous catastrophe.”
This is more than a good simile—the depth of the linguistic play makes each place he describes a metaphor for itself, capturing details and personalities with precision all in the turn of a phrase. At its best, Theroux’s language allows his locale to sing the song of itself, magically in spite of his own narrow-mindedness.
Forty years later, Theroux’s name-making work is still unblinkingly disrupting the nobility we misguidedly attach to travelers, who, of course, are just as vain as we are, and our obsession with authenticity, which lures us into believing that anyone who is just passing through, if they have the right attitude, can experience what another country is “really like.” The Great Railway Bazaar doesn’t try to distill any experience but the author’s own, and it does so with an artfulness that has the bite of a strong drink: in the end the buzz is worth the burn.