Monday, November 6, 2017

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

“THE OLD PATAGONIAN EXPRESS” by Paul Theroux (first published in 1979)


            As I remarked once before on this blog (see review of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451), you may assume when I review a book that I have literally read it from cover to cover, held it in my hands and methodically deciphered all those black marks on the pages. But in my recent dark period, when my eyesight was (for some months) severely impaired, I could neither read nor write in the conventional sense and spent many hours listening to talking books, podcasts and the like. Thus it was that, through 14 CDs, making about 15-and-a-half hours of reading by a very good American reader, I experienced one of Paul Theroux’s earlier travel books The Old Patagonian Express.

            The American novelist Paul Theroux (born 1941) has had many successes with his fiction, most notably his novel The Mosquito Coast. But I think for many readers he is better known for his travel books, most of which involve his taking long train journeys. His first bestseller was The Great Railway Bazaar (by train across Europe and through Asia) and he later wrote Dark Star Express (the length of Africa by train), Riding the Iron Rooster (across China by train) and his most recent (reviewed on this blog) Last Train to Zona Verde, a very dispiriting return train journey in Africa. At the time he wrote Last Train to Zona Verde. Theroux seemed to be saying that this would be his last travel book.

            Published in 1979, The Old Patagonian Express was Theroux’s second travel book. It recounts the two months or so he spent travelling by train from his home in Massachusetts to the deepest south of Argentina – in other words southwards through the United States and the length of Central and South America.

Of course there is no direct rail link from Boston to Patagonia so, as he always does, Theroux began by conning railway timetables and seeing where and how he could make (often perilous and uncertain) connections. He also seems to have prepared himself by reading older and more venerable travel books about the areas he was to pass through. At least he every so often quotes from such books to compare his impressions with those of earlier travellers. He appears to have packed a little library of books to read en route. Interestingly, none of these have anything to do with the countries he is passing through. He mentions reading Edgar Allen Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson (which he rates more highly than I did when I reviewed it on this blog) and Boswell’s Johnson.

Theroux’s rationale for taking the train is a good one. As he correctly says, air travel is no journey at all, but an instantaneous dumping of the traveller from one environment into another. You see nothing of the slow transformation of landscapes that a train journey permits. Theroux deliberately takes no camera with him. His aim is to record in detailed descriptions what his eyes have seen – not to piece together his journey from snapshots. Every so often he also makes it clear that he writes a detailed diary every day, which will later be worked up into this book.

In reading The Old Patagonian Express, it is wise to remember that it was written 40 years ago, and some of the political situations to which it refers have passed away. (For example, Theroux conspicuously avoids visiting Nicaragua, because a civil war was then raging there, and the Argentina he visits was still the Argentina of the junta).

So what are the pleasures of reading (or listening to) this book?

Much is the simple pleasure of decription as the various trains pass through barren deserts, or have Theroux gasping in the thin air as they cross the Andes, or allow him to see the wide reaches of the pampas. Much is the pleasure or surprise of the unexpected spectacular event, such as the football match in El Salvador which turns into a full-scale riot. In terms of human habitation, it is not always a pretty world that Theroux observes. From Mexico to Patagonia, there are many descriptions of urban slums, sprawling squatter camps outside the cities, naked and unwashed children begging and an indifferent (but much smaller) affluent class often living in what amount to gated communities. Nor does Theroux stint on recording the run-down quality of most Latin American trains and their discomfort, or the type of accommodation provided by rat-infested or flea-infested hotels. In short, there is much human squalor in this book.

            Like all good travel writers, however, Theroux is aware that a worthwhile travel book does not run on descriptions alone. (Leave the pretty descriptions of the damned obvious to tourist brochures, guidebooks and most travel blogs I’ve seen). The lifeblood of a good travel book is the human encounter, usually meaning conversations with strangers whom the writer meets. Theroux (fluent in Spanish and in many other languages) has no difficulty buttonholing locals or fellow-travellers and chatting with them. And here, I’m afraid, I encounter an element of this book which arouses my scepticism, as it does with all memoirs which purport to give remembered conversations verbatim. Doubtless Theroux scribbled up versions of his conversations in his diary as soon as he could, but even so, it strikes me as odd that he always comes out best in any argument or quarrel he has with others. I cannot help suspecting that in at least some cases he has used his literary skills to tidy up the conversations he had, or to sway things his way.

            More than one critic has noted Theroux’s tendency in his travel books to adopt a haughty or sardonic tone towards his fellow human beings. He is the superior, literate, civilised traveller taking the measure of those he encounters and often finding that they do not measure up. Indeed he often comes close to sneering. But I give him credit for being an equal opportunity sneerer. Bolivians, Peruvians and Argentinians boasting about their country come in for his flak. (According to Theroux such nationalistic boasting is endemic in Latin America). Corrupt or bribe-accepting officials and complacent railway staff are the subject of his righteous scorn. But he is as hard on his fellow-Americans.

While he is still chugging through the USA he meets a ridiculous, weedy, pasty-faced health-food fanatic who believes all ailments will be cured if only people stuck to a diet of nuts. In the Texas border town of Laredo he sees American men and college boys routinely crossing the border to make use of the brothels on the Mexican side. Theroux makes some ripe comments on the hypocrisy of the American townspeople who pretend there is no vice on the American side of the border while ignoring the fact that it is the American clientele that keeps the Mexican brothels in business. He saves buckets of satirical venom for the small expatriate American community which then controlled the  Canal Zone in Panama (this was shortly before control of the canal was handed over to Panama). Despite years of residence, most of these expatriates haven’t bothered learning Spanish, are inward-turning, regard the Panamanians as an inferior species, pay them lower wages for the work they do, and generally have the mentality of colonial overlords.

Theroux’s most surprising attack on fellow-Americans comes late in the book. It is clear that Theroux has a fairly sceptical attitude towards religion, although he does take a lively artistic and historical interest in all the Spanish churches and cathedrals. But in Argentina he meets a bunch of American tourists spouting the standard (predominantly Protestant) prejudices againct South American Catholic church art. Look at all those excessive images of the naked Christ suffering, with depictions of open wounds and blood. Look at all those detailed images of saints and martyrs being tortured. It’s sheer masochism or sadism! Look at all those golden altars and gold leaf decorations in countries that suffer dire poverty. It’s exploitation of course! Etc. etc. etc. In response, Theroux lectures them by noting that where people are already suffering greatly, they take great comfort from learning that the sufferings of Christ and the saints for them were even greater. And to clothe such images in gold reassures them that this suffering and this belief really are precious. In other words, the religious art is a true reflection of the culture. If, argues Theroux, North American churches are decorated with more restraint and sobriety, and if their images of the suffering Christ show him barely bruised, it is because well-fed North American Christians are complacent and hardly know what real physical suffering is.

In Theroux’s account at least, this riposte effectively silences his interlocutors.

For some readers, the highlight of this book will be Theroux’s long conversations, in Buenos Aires, with the famed Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (then in his 80th year). At this point I have to confess a prejudice of my own. I am no expert on Borges, but the little I have read of his work has not warmed me to him. It seems to me that he was preoccupied with leaping into unreal fantasy worlds and word-games, a sort of higher whimsy. Once again admitting my limited knowledge of the man’s work, I do wonder how much this was the product of trying to maintain a literary career in a country that was too often ruled by oppressive dictators – in other words, an evasion of dangerous everyday social realities. Be all this as it may, Theroux entertains the blind Borges by reading him selections from Poe and Kipling and other writers whom Borges admired and the two of them exchange literary banter, some of it sounding (on Borges’ side) very much like grumpy old man talk, with Borges having nothing positive to say about any living writer and clearly hankering for his favourite late 19th or early 20th century authors.

By the way, Theroux himself rates this meeting as the highpoint of his trip and says he looked forward to seeing Borges in the same way that the 19th century travel writer Kinglake, in his classic travel book Eothen, looked forward to meeting the eccentric Lady Hester Stanhope in the Middle East. While this may be so, I beg to note, as you will see from my review of Eothen on this blog, that when he actually met Lady Hester, the portrait Kinglake painted of her was one of gentle mockery, quite unlike Theroux’s affectionate view of Borges.

For all its unevenness, and for all its haughty scorn, The Old Patagonian Express is a very entertaining book. But I must conclude with one element that greatly amuses me, as it does in many other travel books by Theroux and others. Theroux is desperately eager to tell us that he is not a tourist. Other Americans or Europeans who share train carriages with him are mere tourists, but he himself is a serious traveller and therefore a different species. This approach may well be justified when Theroux is dealing with people on a five-day package tour to see Machu Picchu. But it becomes snobbish imposture when he is belittling German or French backpackers who have clearly been in South America for longer than he has, have seen more and seem to know some local customs better. Theroux presents them as monosyllabic and ignorant. At which point I feel like saying “Listen mush, you’re an intelligent, perceptive, well-read and entertaining writer, but your whole long Americas trip was only two months. It’s not as if you’re the great expert on all the lands you visited. Frankly, you’re a tourist, so stop pushing the other tourists around.” It was this strain in Theroux’s writing that angered a very nice woman I know when she compared her own tourism in Africa with Theroux’s snobby comments on tourists in Last Train to Zona Verde.  In fairness to Theroux, I do have to note that in that later travel book he himself berates his own tourist status and questions the whole validity of travel books based on short visits.

In spite of which moaning I still recommend The Old Patagonian Express as a good read (or listen).

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