This book is one of the few I find hard to finish. I think it is my fault. So many times have I start and stop, abandon it over a long weekend and try to pick it up again. Due to my innate tendency to finish a book, I persevered. I took 45 minutes in the loo at work today and finished up a bigger chunk of the book, so that I could read The 19th wife tomorrow, Yippee!
It is a book about a man in 1973 who is in debt, lecturing at universities, took an advance from his book publisher, decide to travel the world on rail from London to Asia and back from Japan to Moscow by the trans-siberian express. Along the way he travelled with hippies, drug addicts, thieves, annoying peddlers, grumpy Australians who only shows up on his worse day just to remind that he had hit bottom etc. It covers India, Vietnam and Japan more extensively. These are the countries where he took time to stop, prowl and discover. For other cities he was in a hurry to board the next train.
Reading something which is written 35 years ago is like travelling through time tunnel. Back then Iran and Afghanistan is accessible by rail. Both countries ruled by the monarchy still. Vietnam is still at war, Theroux preferred to skip Hanoi and flew out to Sapporo, Japan. Cities name would have changed. Other things remain the same after 35 years, In 1973, a train that travels 300 miles in 3 hours is already operating in Japan. Violent and sexually explicit comics are being read by Japanese teens who would by now be middle aged. Singapore is still a “fine” city, slums in India are still slums. Devotees on prayer mats would still be praying on the opposite of the train moving in Iran (from Teheran to Meshad – West to East). The holy sites of Meshad, Iran or Mathura (Lord Khrisna’s birthplace) are still pilgrim site for worshippers. Travelling on Thailand’s trains is still luxurious. Sex tourism is still a main draw in Thailand.
Some conversations happened on the train are hilarious. Being duffilled (a man with last name Duffil was left behind at the station while going off to buy some food), looking for English girl (whore) in Madras, the Bangladeshi officials who both had 4 – 5 children themselves attended a family planning conference and enjoying themselves in Singapore and had no constructive implementation plan when they get back to Bangladesh.
There are informative historical background and quote from great works, especially one about Be ambitious:
“Boys, be ambitious! Be ambitious not for money, not for selfish aggrandisement, not for the evanescent thing which men call fame. Be ambitious for the attainment of all a man ought to be.” – William S. Clark, founder of the Sapporo Agricultural College 1876.
And the observation of social structure reflected in the way, rules are enforced, seats and tickets are allocated on train. While trying to prove that his travel mission is purposeful, Theroux had said:
I’ve got a theory that what you hear influences – maybe even determines – what you see. An ordinary street can be transformed by a scream. Or a smell might make a horrible smell attractive. Or you might see a great Moghul tomb and while you’re watching it you’’ hear someone say “chickenzola” or “mousehole” and the whole tomb will seems as if it’s made out of paste –
However, I find some of his observation offensive. Racism jokes, lewd jokes, the fact that he hate Singapore etc. I’m left cold by his approach and tone. Theroux goes out of his way to play up his world-weary outlook, as though he has been so disillusioned by what he has seen of the world to ever be affected by what, or whom, he encounters. Still a young man when he wrote this book, Theroux’s dispassionate description of his journey by train through Asia disturbs me – he honestly can’t be touched? Or is it affectation? Either way, I did finish the book, even if I was ambivalent about it by the end.
Some examples, Iranians would not be pleased if they hear that:
Money pulls Iranian in one direction, religion drags him in another, and the result is a stupid starved creature for whom woman is only meat. Thus spake Zarathustra: an ugle mono-maniac with diamond tiara, who calls himself ‘The King of Kings’, is their answer to government, a firing squad their answer to law. Less frigthening, but no less disgusting, is the Iranian taste for jam made out of carrots.
Meshed, is a holy city; consequently, the most fervent Muslims take the Night Mail, everywhere on it are Persians in the postures of devotion. At the evening call to prayer it is as if the train has been stricken with some strange illness. The passengers fall to their knees and salaam.
The pious Sikhs would not be pleased if they hear that:
Sikhs are yokels, and jokes are told to illustrate the implicity of the Sikh mind. There is the one about Sikh who, on emigrating to Canada, is told that he must prove himself a true Canadian by going into the forest and wrestling the bear and raping the squaw. He sets out and returns a month later, with his turban in tatters and his face covered with scratches, saying ‘Now I must wrestle the squaw.’
I need to create a separate rating scale for this book, maybe called it “I can see why this book is well liked, but it is not really my type”. I don’t think I will be reading his travelogues on China, titled Riding the Iron Rooster. I can foresee that with feedback from my English colleague at work who already read it and my strong hunch, he will be condemning the China men about their social “misbehaviour”. As I said, the travel eyes see what is already in the heart. Theroux does just that, he already sees it in his disgruntled and prejudice heart. I am not sure I want to read something which is already coloured with prejudice, world-weariness, whatever. Is it any wonder why his wife was having an extra-marital affairs while he was away on the Grand Railway Bazaar trip?
Verdict : 2 out of 5
What I like about it:
Anecdotes of people that Theroux met on the train. Hilarious, sharp wit, insightful, with interesting information on the historical backdrop.
What I do not like about it:
Theroux’s misanthropy take on his travelling companion. Tendency to skew towards what is lecherous, disgusting, shocking, especially the part about savage eroticism and perverse theatrical plays in Japan.