Paul Theroux, Singapore and Naipaul

Paul Theroux is in Singapore, planning to write a sequel to The Great Railway Bazaar, reported The Straits Times yesterday. I can’t recall what he wrote about Singapore in his famous book about the various trains he rode on an epic journey from London to Tokyo and back. I was more interested then in what he had to say about the Indian railways and the Trans-Siberian Express.

But Theroux has a Singapore connection. The American from Massachusetts taught English at what was then the University of Singapore — now the National University of Singapore — from 1968 to 1971.

His former students didn’t speak well of him, said The Straits Times. That surprised him, it added. He should never have been a university teacher, said local poet and academic Kirpal Singh, adding he was much better as “a personal coach, sharing stories during lectures and over a few drinks with a small group of students”. He cut a dashing figure, said Singh, and girls were attracted to the young lecturer — Theroux was in his late 20s when he came here.

His experiences were not entirely happy.

“I was essentially fired,” Theroux told The Straits Times. His contract wasn’t renewed, it added.

What the newspaper didn’t say is that Theroux was already bored with teaching. He wrote his fifth novel, Jungle Lovers, in Singapore and decided to become a full-time writer.

He moved to London in 1972 and hasn’t looked back. Saint Jack, his novel about an American brothel-keeper in Singapore, came out in 1973 and made into a film by Peter Bogdanovich, the hotshot director of The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon, in 1979. It was banned in Singapore, where it was filmed. But Singapore is a tiny market and Theroux was on a roll. The Great Railway Bazaar published in 1975 became an international bestseller and in 1981 he wrote his best-known novel, The Mosquito Coast.

I haven’t read Saint Jack but enjoyed his travelogues, The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express, The Kingdom By The Sea, Riding The Iron Rooster.   

He can be acerbic but is immensely readable like his former friend, VS Naipaul. They first met at Makarere University in Uganda, where Theroux taught before coming to Singapore. Naipaul, who went to the Ugandan university as a visiting scholar, was already famous then for his novel, A House for Biswas. He wasn’t keen on academics either and spent time drinking, whingeing and doing his own writing. So says Theroux in Sir Vidia’s Shadow, the book he wrote after falling out with Naipaul. It’s a bitter book. He portrays Naipaul as rude, arrogant and a bit of sponger. But he admits there was a time when he looked up to Naipaul as a writer.

Naipaul won the Nobel Prize in 2001, three years after Sir Vidia’s Shadow came out. So in a way Naipaul had the last laugh.

But Theroux, now on his second marriage (again like Naipaul) and living in Hawaii, is still going strong. He celebrated his 65th birthday on April 10. The father of two — the elder son born in Uganda, the younger in Singapore — spoke to The Straits Times about his healthy lifestyle.

“I’ve written 40 or so books — could I have done that if I didn’t have a good night’s sleep, good diet or exercise?” he asked.

“I don’t smoke. I hardly drink. I’m a healthy person,” he said.

“If you  want to be productive, you need to be healthy.”

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