The Cheltenham Literature Festival – 5th to 14th October 2018
Authors on location – Paul Theroux
12th November 2017
#AuthorsOnLocation – PAUL THEROUX
For some writers location is as integral to their story-telling as plot or character. TripFiction takes a look at some of these authors, for whom a sense of place has helped to define their literary output. For the fourth in the series we have chosen Paul Theroux.
Theroux is probably best known for his travel writing, but in truth he is difficult to pigeon-hole. I first knew him from his novels, initially The Mosquito Coast, The London Embassy and – more recently – The Stranger at the Palazzo D’Oro, but he is universally recognised as being one of the foremost writers of immersive travel experiences, as well as of novels and short stories.
Born in Massachusetts, he joined the Peace Corps in Malawi as a teacher, after graduating from college in 1963. He moved to London in 1972, which marked the start of his travel adventures. Here are just a few of his many published books, all with a powerful sense of place.
The Great Railway Bazaar – travelogue set in Asia
The Great Railway Bazaar is Theroux’s account of his epic journey by rail through Asia. Filled with evocative names of legendary train routes – the Direct-Orient Express, the Khyber Pass Local, the Delhi Mail from Jaipur, the Golden Arrow to Kuala Lumpur, the Hikari Super Express to Kyoto and the Trans-Siberian Express – it describes the many places, cultures, sights and sounds he experienced and the fascinating people he met.
Here he overhears snippets of chat and occasional monologues, and is drawn into conversation with fellow passengers, from Molesworth, a British theatrical agent, and Sadik, a shabby Turkish tycoon, while avoiding the forceful approaches of pimps and drug dealers. This wonderfully entertaining travelogue pays loving tribute to the romantic joys of railways and train travel.
The Old Patagonian Express – travelogue set in North & South America
Beginning on Boston’s subway, Theroux depicts another voyage by train, this time from ice-bound Massachusetts to the arid plateau of Argentina’s most southerly tip, via pretty Central American towns and the ancient Incan city of Macchu Pichu.
Shivering and sweating by turns as the temperature and altitude rise and plummet, he describes the people he encounters – thrown in with the tedious, and unavoidable, Mr Thornberry in Limón and reading to the legendary blind writer, Jorge Luis Borges, in Buenos Aires.
Witty, sharply observed and beautifully written, this is a richly evocative account of travelling to ‘the end of the line’.
Dark Star Safari – travelogue set in Africa
Travelling across bush and desert, down rivers and across lakes, and through country after country, Theroux visits some of the most beautiful landscapes on earth, and some of the most dangerous. It is a journey of discovery and of rediscovery — of the unknown and the unexpected, but also of people and places he knew as a young and optimistic teacher forty years before.
Safari in Swahili simply means “journey”, and this is the ultimate safari. It is Theroux in his element — a trip where chance encounter is everything, where departure and arrival times are an irrelevance, and where contentment can be found balancing on the top of a truck in the middle of nowhere.
The Mosquito Coast – novel set in Honduras
This gripping novel tells of the adventures inflicted upon this family by the brilliant and yet dangerous Allie Fox, as he tries to settle everyone into the Honduran jungle. He has removed them from the evils of modern day world but it turns into a desperate struggle for survival. His madcap plans and authoritarian nature make this a study of control and of living in a harsh terrain.
Hotel Honolulu – novel set in Hawaii
Newly married and having recently taken over the management of a hotel in Honolulu, a former writer is drawn into the chaotic lives of his guests and into the distinctive customs and rhythms of the distant island. As witness to the many contrasting, and often ribald, chronicles of the hotel’s characters, he ultimately finds personal salvation through returning to writing once again.
The result is this novel in eighty distinct episodes, a Chaucerian sequence of strange pilgrims and just-as-strange islanders confronting each other, and their fate, in the rooms of the seedy hotel.
Riding the Iron Rooster – travelogue set in China
Back on familiar transport, Theroux left Victoria Station on a rainy Saturday in April thinking that taking eight trains across Europe, Eastern Europe, the USSR and Mongolia would be the easy way to get to the Chinese border – the relaxing way, even. He would read a little, take notes, eat regular meals and gaze contentedly out of windows. The reality, of course, was very different.
In fact, Theroux experienced a decidedly odd and unexpected trip to China that set the challenging tone for his epic year-long rail journey around that vast, inscrutable land – a journey which involved riding nearly every train in the country.
The Elephanta Suite – novellas set in India
In The Elephanta Suite, Theroux weaves three intertwined novellas of Westerners transformed by their sojourns in India.
This startling, far-reaching book captures the tumult, ambition, hardship, and serenity that mark today’s India. Theroux’s Westerners risk venturing far beyond the subcontinent’s well-worn paths to discover woe or truth or peace. A middle-aged couple on vacation veers heedlessly from idyll to chaos. A buttoned-up Boston lawyer finds succor in Mumbai’s reeking slums. And a young woman befriends an elephant in Bangalore.
We also meet Indian characters as singular as they are reflective of the country’s subtle ironies: an executive who yearns to become a holy beggar, an earnest young striver whose personality is rewired by acquiring an American accent, a miracle-working guru, and others.
As ever, Theroux’s portraits of people and places explode stereotypes to exhilarating effect. The Elephanta Suite urges us toward a fresh, compelling, and often inspiring notion of what India is, and what it can do to those who try to lose—or find—themselves there.
Andrew for the TripFiction Team
You can follow Paul Theroux on Twitter (although he has not been active recently)
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