Monday, March 24, 2008

Paul Theroux on Travel

Paul Theroux has been criticized for being a grumpy, mean-spirited traveler. From my own experience of travel, I don’t think that’s true. Certainly he was never as grumpy as his ex-friend V.S. Naipaul — or Naipaul’s brother Shiva, who died in 1985 and whose North of South is one of the sourest books on Africa I’ve ever read. For all its surprises and rewards, travel can be tough. You get sick. You get lost. You have to fend off pickpockets at the Harare bus station. Your backpack is stolen from under your feet in Bulawayo. You find yourself stuck without a ride on a lonely road, with night approaching. Theroux’s travel writing acknowledges snags like these, and that is what makes it so believable. In an article for the Guardian, recently featured by Arts & Letter Daily, Theroux explained that his approach was a reaction to the airbrushed travel-supplement approach of the early 1960s.
The travel book was a bore. It annoyed me that a traveller hid his or her moments of desperation or fear or lust. Or the time he or she screamed at the taxi driver, or mocked the folk dancers. And what did they eat, what books did they read to kill time, and what were the toilets like? I had done enough travelling to know that half of travel was delay or nuisance — buses breaking down, hotel clerks being rude, market peddlers being rapacious. The truth of travel was interesting and off-key, and few people ever wrote about it.
(Oddly enough, in a recent interview that I wrote about earlier, Theroux said that he tries to leave out accounts of being sick or being delayed — that these sorts of things happen to everyone, and are not interesting to readers. Maybe he really meant that a little of that goes a long way.) Theroux decided early on that a travel book should be about travel — about moving from one place to another. Staying put in Malawi or Uganda or Singapore was more suited to fiction, he felt. There’s something to this as well. Although I can think of a number of fine nonfiction books that don’t cover much territory, many of the most successful, like Redmond O’Hanlon’s No Mercy, do involve overland traveling toward a goal, with a good deal of suffering along the way.

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