The railway was a fictor’s bazaar, in which anyone with the patience could carry away a memory to pore over in privacy. The memories were inconclusive, but an ending, as in the best fiction, was always implied. (70)
I maintain a weak spot for travelogues of all shapes and sizes, and despite that fact that I’ve ridden on just five trains in my lifetime, such travelogues as those set on the rails are among my favorites. By far the master of the “Train-velogue,” Paul Theroux never ceases to entertain with his powerfully illustrative words, his fascination with the natural and local, his crankshaft demeanor, and his detailed anecdotes which—when strung together like the boxcars in which many of them occur—are often gritty, deeply human tales that color the world through his eyes. In this particular book, Theroux takes us from London to Turkey, Afghanistan, India, Vietnam and everything in between, before concluding with a return trip from Japan through Siberia and back home again.
The Great Railway Bazaar is a powerful snapshot of those parts of the world just after the American withdrawal from the Vietnam War, which is exactly why I devour travelogues the way I do. While history books can deliver to us facts about people and events of times past, travelogues describe the sounds, sights, and smells that give those facts context. This genre might one day prove to be the most vital (if not also prejudiced and subjective) piece of historical literature that will survive through the ages, as it describes a particular place in time much like The Travels of Marco Polo have done about China for centuries. These books written by Paul Theroux just might one day be required reading for school children of the future who need to learn about a writer’s view of the late 20th Century world.
Each chapter of this book follows a particular train route, with stops and delays intermixed. From the beginning of his book, Theroux had a rough idea of where he would like to go, what he would like to see, and for how long, but certainly didn’t strictly hold to any timetable, other than the dates determining his circuit of lectures around the world which would help pay for his travels. It was only after finishing the book that I realized he might not have thought completely through his plan, for his tentative schedule put him in Northern Japan and Siberia at Christmastime, with a remaining 6,000 miles to travel before hitting London! Unless it was meant to be fodder for his imagination, wintertime in Siberia does not seem like a fitting way to end such an epic trip. Perhaps this is why I read the end of the book so quickly: I wanted his journey to end, if only so he could get to his warm home and cuddle with his wife!
As with all Theroux’s books, he peppers his pages with witty remarks and observations that have already made their way to my book of quotes. Here are a few of my favorites:
- “If a train is large and comfortable you don’t even need a destination.” (1)
- “It is not skinny people who look hungry, but rather fat ones.” (58)
- “Never go back to a palmist.” (173)
- “It is possible at a distance to maintain the fiction of former happiness—childhood or school days—and then you return to an early setting and the years fall away and you see how bitterly unhappy you were.” (240)
- “The Japanese have perfected good manners and have made them indistinguishable from rudeness.” (290)
- “The difference between travel writing and fiction is the difference between recording what the eye sees and discovering what the imagination knows.” (342)
This book contained a whole lot more sex and dirty stories than I had anticipated from a married man training through Asia, but he did after all visit places like Bangkok, and this was the free-loving ’70s. For this reason, I recommend that the reader beware. Besides these gratuitous accounts, however, The Great Railway Bazaar is a well-crafted classic tale of travel and I’m glad that I picked it up.