The Long Way Home: A Review of Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express
The plan is simple. Get on the train in Boston, just like all those other folks heading to work, except when they get off, keep going. And going and going and going until you can't go any more. You'll end up in Patagonia, at the far tip of South America. Such is the conceit of Paul Theroux's 1979 book, The Old Patagonian ExpressThis, like many of Theroux's books, is not a story of a place, but of all the places and people on the way to that place. The destination is of no consequence, merely a lodestar to set one's bearings by and each layover, turn-off, and station platform bench is the reason to leave home. As Theroux himself puts it, in the opening chapter of Express,The convention is to telescope travel writing, to start - as so many novels do - in the middle of things, to beach the reader in a bizarre place without first having guided him there... My usual question, unanswered by these - by most - travel books, is, How did you get there? Even without the suggestion of a motive, a prologue is welcome, since the going is often as fascinating as the arrival. In Express, there is much to be fascinated by, thanks to the peculiarity of Latin American rail systems and Theroux's desire to stick to his plan. Throughout the region, rail systems have been almost universally neglected. They are slow, old (he rides a steam train at one point), and out of the way (Theroux often notes how the stations are placed on the outskirts of towns rather than in the centers.) The interiors aren't much better - heat, dust, insects, odors. Bouts with altitude sickness as he heads across the Andes only heighten the discomfort. More orthodox travelers take buses and planes, modes of transport that Theroux only stoops to when the rails are impassable thanks to jungle, landslide, or political strife. And so Theroux contrives to give us a book that is all prologue, all "going" and no arrival (or only a very small one, anyway).There is a very enjoyable tongue-in-cheek element to Theroux's travel books, wherein he bemoans the dull and sometimes capricious people he encounters as well as the unpleasant traveling conditions and muses at how foolish he was to even think that such a quest was a good idea. These complaints are both sincere and immensely entertaining thanks to Theroux's skill as a storyteller. For example, there is Theroux's detour to Machu Picchu, when he has occasion to ruminate on the student traveler (and those masquerading as student travelers):There were advantages to being a student: student fares, student rates, student hostels, student entry fees. Great, hairy middle-aged buffoons complained at ticket counters and shouted "Look, I'm a student! Do me a favor! He doesn't believe I'm a fucking student. Hey--" They were cut-priced tourists, idlers, vagabonds, freebooters who had gravitated to this impoverished place because they wanted to save money. Their conversation was predictable and was wholly concerned with prices, the exchange rate, the cheapest hotel, the cheapest bus, how someone ("Was he a gringo?"), got a meal for fifteen cents, or an alpaca sweater for a dollar and bunked with some Aymara Indians in a benighted village. They were Americans, but they were also Dutch, German, French, British, and Scandinavian; they spoke the same language, always money. Their boast was always how long they had managed to hang on here in the Peruvian Andes and beat the system.This is not to say that Theroux looks down upon these backpackers because of their thriftiness - he travels in much the same way they do - mostly just their insensitivity.Theroux's many complaints, entertaining as they are, set us up for the moments when his trip is worthwhile. Unlike basic cable travel and food shows, on which the hosts coo with glee at every sight and taste, when Theroux is impressed by something, the reader knows it is impressive, and when he is pleased, one knows his experience is sublime. The highlight of the book, at least for this bibliophile, is his series of visits with Jorge Luis Borges in Buenos Aires. Theroux reads to the blind Borges almost nightly for a stretch, and mischievous Borges takes Theroux to dinner at the local restaurant. Theroux's peek into Borges' life and mannerisms is fascinating, and the episode epitomizes the the best elements of travel, when surprise encounters can lead to friendship. Similarly rewarding are the friendships Theroux makes with many other less well known locals throughout the two Americas. So too are the simple moments of exhilaration, when Theroux has disembarked from a rickety train in a place that is new and closer to his ultimate goal. In these moments, all the painful, stuffy, dusty rides are worth it. And home, however far away, isn't missed quite so much.See Also: Andrew's Travel Writing by Train and Mrs. Millions' thoughts on the book.
On Pym and Poe
When I was in high school, I was quite enthralled by Edgar Allan Poe. I'd been familiar with his most famous stories from a young age (I remember being particularly haunted by "The Cask of Amontillado"), but in high school I had the opportunity, poked and prodded by teachers, to delve deeper into some of the lesser known (or perhaps just less famous) stories, as well as his essays. The assigned reading begat extracurricular reading, as it sometimes did for me, and in looking for more Poe, I came across the one novel he ever wrote, an appropriately peculiar book, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. It turned out to be a bizarre maritime tale rich with allegory and supernatural elements, not to mention cannibalism and geographic oddities (with particular attention paid to the mysterious Antarctica).It's one of those books that stuck with me even though I don't remember all that much about it, but I hadn't thought about it for a while until Mrs. Millions asked me the other day if I'd ever heard of it. As it turns out, this is the book that Paul Theroux reads to Jorge Luis Borges in The Old Patagonian Express (as Mrs. Millions mentioned in writing about the book this week.)This juxtaposition led me to read up on the book at Wikipedia and elsewhere. I came away with a few nuggets: for example, I discovered that Jules Verne - in a fan fiction sort of turn - wrote a sequel to Pym called An Antarctic Mystery. Pym also inspired writers like H.P. Lovecraft, who drew from it in his book At the Mountains of Madness, Yann Martel, for his Booker-winning Life of Pi, and Rudy Rucker for The Hollow Earth. It also turns out that Borges once called Pym "Poe's greatest work." I think my copy is still tucked away at my parents house somewhere, so I'll have to dig it up at some point. In the meantime, the full text of the book is available online.
Mrs. Millions Reads: The Old Patagonian Express
Mrs. Millions sent me a nice email yesterday (from the other room - funny how we communicate) that she thought I might want to share on the blog. It touches on the many things that reading can offer beyond just the story itself.And since Mrs. Millions puts up with all the time I spend on the blog, she gets to post here as much as she likes. Here's what she wrote:I recently started a full-time job. Prior to this I had relished a very irregular schedule, taking on projects, doing freelance design work, and teaching on the side. It was a juggling act but gave me many different avenues to pursue. Now I am getting accustomed to a more regular schedule. My life is a busy sequence of days, and will remain so until I adapt. Because I am continuing a couple of projects I had begun prior to taking this job, it feels as though I am unable to complete anything. Things which remain undone are very troubling - I think about them when I am not working on them, spending time worrying when I could otherwise be productive. And so, each day, I head to work, knowing that I will return home tired, and be unable to complete the other things that, at times, I would much rather be doing.Last night, however, I accomplished something. I finished reading The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux. For me, finishing a book is usually a little sad. I don't have a queue of books staring at me, and once I get to know a character or a place, I don't like to leave them behind. When I get to the end of a book, well, I'll read only a single page in a sitting, just to keep it from ending. I'll even reread the last page or two over and over. So, there I was, awake late a couple of nights ago, giving in to reading the last few sentences, thinking about the journey that is The Old Patagonian Express, trying to keep the story from ending.The Old Patagonian Express is a wonderful story, without a moral or a murder or a message, other than having a definite path and destination. For Theroux, it's Patagonia via railroad starting in Boston and traveling far far south through cities, villages and past singular train stations that are nothing more than a wooden platform in the middle of seemingly nothing. Theroux is true to his goal, and is enviably determined and able to achieve it. His sticks to the course, deviating only for Borges (but who wouldn't change their plans to have the chance to read to Borges?). Time is a major theme in the book - train schedules, waiting, rushing, riding. Time, for me, is so finite when I set goals for myself. And it's so easy to fail when all I look at is the time. But life isn't about time, it's about all the things that come and go and make life interesting and exciting.So, after finishing the book, I realized that I needed to be less time-obsessed. This I can claim to attribute to Theroux, but that would be false. My husband, Max, is the person who gave me this book to read. And in reading it dutifully a few pages each night, I finished it, felt satisfied, happy, and knew that my day had been a good one because I had completed something. Thank you, Max, for helping me to slow down and be successful. I'm ready for my next book.Thanks, Mrs. Millions! Ain't she a sweetheart! I've given her A Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin to read next. Hopefully, it can offer a similarly sublime experience.I should have also mentioned: I was inspired to get this book in the first place by Andrew's post, Travel Writing by Train.
I got a package today from my inlaws who decided to get me five books for my birthday (which was Jan. 5). They came right off my wishlist, so, of course, they're exactly what I wanted. Two of the five are coffee-table books. I'll be spending a lot of time with the utterly gorgeous book The World on Sunday. Nicholson Baker and Margaret Brentano have put together really nice reproductions of Joseph Pulitzer's colorful newspaper. Baker's foreword and Brentano's captions really elevate the book. I wrote more about it last month. The other big book I received is a monograph, put out by Aperture, of photography by Robert Capa. Capa is famous for his war photography from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. His photographs, all in black and white, are unflinching and powerful. He's essential to the grand tradition of war reportage. (This one actually wasn't on my wishlist but they knew I'd like it.) In keeping with the Capa theme, I also received his illustrated memoir of World War II, Slightly Out of Focus. I also got The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux which Andrew wrote about a few months back, and Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Oster, which I think I first heard about at Language Hat.
Travel Writing by Train
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.