Paul Theroux turns 70 today. Happy birthday!
More than 30 years have passed since The Great Railway Bazaar was published in 1975. But the writing is as sharp as ever in this piece published in the New York Times a few days ago, on April Fool’s Day:
Many people think of global travel as though presented on a menu… But it is a changing menu, as certain places are “discovered” and others deleted. Libya is now a war zone, but only the other day the Libyan tourist board was encouraging visitors with promises of Roman ruins and cusucs bil-hoot (the Berber version of couscous with fish)…
Tourists have always taken vacations in tyrannies — Tunisia and Egypt are pretty good examples. The absurd dictatorship gives such an illusion of stability that the place is often a holiday destination….
I haven’t laid my hands yet on his latest book, The Tao of Travel, but enjoyed his last travelogue, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (published in 2008), even though he was critical as usual of Singapore. Not that he had the same brusque reception as he described in The Great Railway Bazaar, where two Singapore officials accosted him as the train was about to cross the border from Malaysia to Singapore. They wanted to know how much money he had and rubbed him the wrong way. He made fun of their English and portrayed them as a comic pair of heavies.
But there was something far more sinister in his chapter on Singapore in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. He claimed to have met a pimp in Geylang who offered sex with children. I was shocked.
In the New York Times article, Theroux wrote:
Throughout history the traveller has been forced to recognize the fact that leaving home means a loss of innocence, encountering uncertainty: the wider world has typically been regarded as haunted, a place of darkness: “There Be Dragons.” Or as Othello reported, “Cannibals that each other eat, /The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads/Do grow beneath their shoulders.”
Theroux can disconcert with the stories he tells, the scenes he describes. I can’t forget the beggar with amputated legs dragging himself along with his bare hands in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in The Great Railway Bazaar. In Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Theroux explained why he was drawn back to the places he first described more than 30 years ago in The Great Railway Bazaar:
Memory is a ghost train too…
Older people are perceived as cynics and misanthropes –- but no, they are simply people who have at last heard the still, sad music of humanity played by an inferior rock band howling for fame. Going back and retracing my footsteps… would be for me a way of seeing who I was, where I went, and what subsequently happened to the places I had seen.
Carry on, Theroux. Many happy returns!