Doing the locomotive with Paul Theroux
People tend to either love or hate Paul Theroux, and although I can sympathise with his detractors I belong to the former camp. He is an uncompromising author that calls things as he sees them, refusing to romanticise or sensationalise his experiences. Although he comes across as a misanthropist, it seems paradoxal that he should put himself into the situations he does. Travelling in Latin America, as in many parts of the developing world, is not an experience recommended for anyone who values their personal space or desires escaping from humanity.
From ‘Riding the Iron Rooster’, to the more recent ‘Dark Star Safari’, to this, Theroux concentrates more on the journies than the destinations, refusing to make life easy (or remotely comfortable) for himself. Theroux’s maxim as a travel writer is that transport tells you more about a country than the ‘sights’ themselves: ‘The journey, not the arrival, matters; the voyage, not the landing’.
One of Theroux’s main criticisms is that he places himself too centrally in his non-fiction, that we learn more about him than the places he visits. He is at his worst when comparing himself to the other travellers he encounters, categorising and dismissing people with an immense and transparent arrogance. However, if accepted as part of the Theroux ‘brand’ you can forgive some of his negative characteristics and appreciate his relentless eye for the tragedy and comedy of the developing world. Probably his best travel book, The Old Patagonian Express finds him at his most archly ironic and entertaining.