It's very strange now to look at my row of travel books by the best travel writer there ever was. His tales of moving from one country to the next, a traveller at large in the wide world, seem more like his other kinds of books: novels. Right now we can only imagine what it's like to travel. To write about it would be to write fiction. Paul Theroux – 27 novels, 18 travel books - was a master of both.
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He went everywhere. His first, classic book, The Great Railway Bazaar, saw him leave London at Victoria station and return four and a half months later via the Trans-Siberian Express. I think his best book was the one where he travelled through Africa (Dark Star Safari) or maybe it was the one where he travelled through China (Riding The Iron Rooster) and even his worst one, where he dragged his sorry arse through New Zealand, Australia and the South Pacific (The Happy Isles of Oceania) was just about the best travel book set in our own happy isles.
He embarked on that trip just as his marriage collapsed. The nadir of his journeying was a visit to Christchurch: "In front of the California Fried Chicken Family Restaurant on Papanui Road in Merivale I saw a family of four, Dad, Mum, and the two boys, eating happily in the glary light and joking with each other, and at the sight of this happy family I burst into tears."
There has been a crazy but enduring notion that Theroux's travel books are the record of a grump, a sourpuss, a meanie. Certainly, he can be direct and the rudeness of others drives him into a frenzy. But in fact, he's wonderful company, funny, alert, interested in everything and everybody. He suffers fools gladly. He's kind and generous.
Well, maybe not in New Zealand, where he was heartbroken, and wandered the streets like a ghost. Students in Dunedin were "ignorant, aggressive and dirty". Kiwis everywhere were "beaky and pale, with short pants and knobbly knees". Still, he wasn't blind to our charms. Later, in Aitutaki, he writes of parking his kayak on the beach and running into a man with "thick glasses and rather dainty hands".
Theroux said, "You look familiar."
The man replied, "David Lange. I used to be Prime Minister of New Zealand."
The two got on famously. Theroux gets on famously with hundreds of people in his travel books. He's an observant and quite poetic observer of place but his books are so peopled, so warm and insightful about strangers he talks to on trains, in bars, on the street. He has better conversations with people he's just met than most of us do with people we've known intimately for years.
The whole world seems to walk through the pages of his books. Sad men and officious men in South America; wise men and scoundrels in Russia; chatty women, gorgeous women, frightening women of all races and nationalities. Sometimes I get tired of all that company but I never tire of Theroux himself.
One of his most fetching qualities is that he reads everywhere he goes. In Ethiopia, he reads the journals of Arthur Rimbaud, who left France and became a trader in Harar: "He was a celebrated poet living in obscurity in a walled town among black illiterates and philistines whose respect he had to earn as a man." One sentence, four facts, no comma or breath needed to complete his thought.
Theroux wrote about travelling Britain in The Kingdom by the Sea during the Falklands War. He retraced his first travel book 33 years later in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star and set off just as Black Tuesday summoned the world into recession. "A national crisis is an opportunity, a gift to the traveller; nothing is more revealing of place to a stranger than trouble," he writes. The war and the GFC gave both books a charge, a keen and penetrating light.
But the latest crisis affords no one the opportunity. All is lockdown, closed borders, stay at home.
Theroux, like everyone, could once go anywhere he chose. Here he is, writing about a city in China in Riding the Iron Rooster: "I had been there once before. It had seemed to me a nightmare city, of muddy streets and black factories, pouring frothy poisons into the Yangtze. It was bigger than I remembered it, but not so black. There were dozens of high-level cranes putting on new buildings, and a hospital."
I wonder now about that hospital and the patients it cared for in the past few weeks. The city that Theroux is describing is ground zero of Covid-19: Wuhan.