It’s the little things in train travel that stay with you. It’s not the sweeping vistas or the pastoral villages. After a while, the specific memories of panorama seem to bleed into each other. It’s not the quaint architecture or the run-down graffiti-filled approaches to the stations. It’s not the things that every travel book raves about that linger. It’s the little things which seem to come out of nowhere.
It’s being Vienna-bound at the Budapest train station five years ago and, somewhat confused by the vague pointing that passes for traveler’s assistance, winding up unchallenged onboard a train at a platform which quite plainly said Vienna. It’s suddenly cluing into the passengers’ conversations and realizing that the train has in fact just arrived FROM Vienna. It’s scrambling out of the train mere seconds before it pulls away, before it heads off to its actual destination, which, it now becomes quite clear, is in fact Moscow, and, well, not part of my plan.
It’s things like that.
For every train story that I have, Paul Theroux must have a hundred. But what makes his tales so compelling is context. With a novelist’s eye for setting and ear for dialogue, Theroux presents The Great Railway Bazaar and The Old Patagonian Express as travel literature in the purest sense. They are not about the destination. They are about the journey. The ‘getting there.’
The Great Railway Bazaar chronicles Theroux’s mid ’70s journey from London, through Europe, and across the vast expanse of Asia, onboard trains with such imagination-firing names as the Orient Express, the Mandalay Express, and the Trans-Siberian. Theroux travels through the former Yugoslavia, through pre-Taliban Afghanistan, and through Soviet-era Russia, throwing the last 30 years of history on its head.
The Old Patagonian Express tracks Theroux, a few years later, leaving his Boston home and taking train after train through the U.S., Mexico, Central America, and down through South America to Patagonia, in southern Argentina.
If his novelist’s eye gives the book its richness, his sarcasm gives it its edge. Paul Theroux doesn’t suffer fools gladly. When he encounters them, as when he encountered an astonishingly incurious 20-year-old pontificating vegan. He lets loose — pointedly playful to her, a bit more viciously sarcastic to us. It’s not always fair, and the frustrations that come with an extended voyage permeate his observations, but it’s honest in a brutal sort of way, and often terribly amusing.
I’ve not yet read any of Theroux’s fiction, despite the presence on my bookshelf of The Mosquito Coast which has been sitting there, unread, for probably ten years. But I rate these two non-fiction accounts as the best travel literature I’ve read so far.
I’ve also sampled some of Bill Bryson’s work. Bryson is a different sort of travel writer. Where Theroux has his novelist’s eye and ears, Bryson has the sensibilities of a humorist. His books seem somewhat lighter; they skim the surface more and come off as humorous memoir. His recent works seem more massive, somewhat less flippant. But in Bryson’s case, I would recommend his earlier books which drip with irreverence — sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes glib. But always quite funny.
Neither Here Nor There recounts Bryson’s travels through Europe in the early 90s, a journey which in fact re-traces one he made some twenty years earlier. Wound-up by an encounter with a neighborhood of Belgian dogs, Bryson lets fly with a paragraph about why cows would in fact make the best pets, with a punch line worthy of classic Woody Allen. This book may not reach for the same lofty goals as his later works, but it hits its mark. It’s tight, funny and breezy.
I guess where Theroux and, to a lesser extent, Bryson, brought travel literature into the modern age is in the acceptance that travel is a succession of small adventures, each one potentially rich in little details, in comically surreal moments. And in embracing these moments as the details which propel the story.
My own Central European train journey five years ago hit its surreal zenith on an overnight train from Prague to Budapest. Essentially alone, save for a comatose heap near the window, I happened to be eavesdropping on an altercation in the next compartment. We were in Bratislava, and Slovakian officials were now on the train rousing passengers from their slumber. I could hear an American voice politely assuring the officer that his ticket was for the full journey, and was paid in full. But the booming official, drunk with power, somehow managed to coerce more American dollars out of the passenger.
I was next. The intimidating official had a broken arm, slung in a cast. Now, as it happens, I have one arm. (Or more accurately, I don’t have a second arm). Normally in public I wear a creepily lifelike prosthetic arm, rendering me effectively two-armed to any limb-savvy onlookers who happen to be counting. Alone, at night, I had removed it, and it was to this empty space, this void, that the Slovakian official, ready to bleed me of more money, suddenly pointed, then pointed to his own injured arm, then beamed, then pointed back and forth again, gave me the OK sign, and then left me alone to continue my journey.