Paul Edward Theroux
"The difference between travel writing as fiction is the
difference between recording what the eye sees and
discovering what the imagination knows. Fiction is pure
joy -- how sad that I could not reinvent the trip as fiction."
From “The Great Railway Bazaar”
Presentation by Natasha Khan
Literary Journalism, Spring 2011
Theroux: the Basics
• American professor, novelist and travel writer
• Born April 10, 1941 in Medford, Massachusetts
“The travel book was a bore. A bore wrote it and bores read it. It
annoyed me that a traveler hid his or her moments or 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 traveling 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.” – 2008 Preface, The Great Railway
Early Life
• Graduates high school in 1959; leaves Medford “the first
chance I had”
• Takes Creative Writing course from poet Joseph Langland
at University of Massachusetts Amherst; this would change
the way Theroux saw writing as a career
• Joins Peace Corps after graduating, and that brought him
to Malawi (Southeast Africa), where he taught from 1963 to
• While in Malawi, writes for Christian Science Monitor,
Playboy, and Esquire
• Gets thrown out of Peace Corps and Malawi for
involvement in failed coup d'etat of the Malawi presidentdictator
Early Life (Continued)
• Moves to Uganda, teaches at Makerere University,
where he meets Nobel Literature Laureate V.S.
Naipaul (a long friendship ensues until public fallingout 30 years later)
• Begins publishing novels: including Waldo (1967) and
Fong and the Indians (1968)
• 1968: joins the University of Singapore and teaches at
the Department of English for three years
• Gets bored of teaching and decides to become a
professional writer
• Writes more novels in the UK, since his first wife gets
a job in London (she has since worked as a producer
at BBC World Service)
Begins Travel Writing
“Money is an awkward subject for most writers, but it was a crucial
factor in my decision to write my first travel book – I simply needed
the money.”
Gets advance for “The Great Railway Bazaar,” about travelling by train
through Asia -- from London to Turkey to Iran to India to Burma to
Malaysia to Vietnam to Japan
(Had always felt a romantic notion for train travel.)
“Travel had to do with movement and truth, offering yourself to
experience, and then reporting on it.”
Leaves for his trip in September 1973. “(My wife) had been very angry
at my going, leaving her with the children. But my answer had been:
Soldiers leave home, so did sailors and fishermen – they have to
leave their families. Think of me that way – I’m not abandoning you,
I’m working, pursuing a book.”
Comes home to find that “in my absence I had been replaced in my
wife’s affection by another man. ‘I pretended you were dead,’ she
said. This was something horrible to me, especially in my fragile
mental state at the end of the difficult trip… I looked for refuge in
my book and through the weird alchemy that turns misery to humor,
much of what I wrote was comedy.”
Writes More Travel Books
• The Old Patagonian Express
(1979): travels by train from
Boston to Argentina
• The Happy Isles of Oceania
(1992): kayaking in the South
• Riding the Iron Rooster (1988):
travels through China
• Dark Star Safari (2002): travels
from Cairo to Cape Town
• Also writes a series of novels in
the meantime, including Kowloon
Tong (1997) – on British Rule in
Hong Kong
Good to Know
• Famous Family: Theroux is the father of British authors
and documentary makers Louis Theroux and Marcel
Theroux; brother of authors Alexander Theroux and Peter
Theroux, and uncle to American actor and screenwriter
Justin Theroux
• Now lives in Cape Cod and Hawaii with his second wife,
where he also apparently keeps bees and makes his own
brand of honey
• Is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in the UK
• Accolades include Thomas Cook Travel Book Prize and
American Book Award nomination
• My Secret History (1989) and My Other Life (1996) (both
fiction) believed to semi-autobiographical
• Theroux picks up languages quite quickly. Languages he
seems to know include Italian, French, Spanish, Chichewa,
and Swahili
Travel Writing Style
• Provides vivid and rich descriptions of places, people, experiences
• Puts himself in the story – interactions and feelings
• His observations are unsparing, frank and sometimes cynical (some
have called him a misanthrope -- a person who dislikes or distrusts
From the Guardian (2003 Article): Theroux's
brand of travel writing is not of the soggy "a
funny thing happened to me on the way to
Taipei" variety, but fiercely purposeful, with a
novelist's knack of turning anecdote into
moral inquiry. "You can't just take a trip and
think, I might write about it. That won't work.
That's just a paragraph in an autobiography:
'I went to Turkey.' This is an account of what
happened over a period of time, and ideally
there's a change in your thinking or some
kind of enlightenment. I don't see it as luxury.
It's the opposite. Travel is nasty."
Writing keeps him going
(from the Guardian profile: 2003)
When he turned 60, Paul Theroux decided to mark the occasion
by doing something sensible. While other men his age run out
and grab the youngest women who will have them, Theroux
resolved to sit tight and do what he always does when he wants
an experience without the inconvenience of living it; put it in a
book. "Men in their late 50s often make very bad decisions. If I
write about this, I thought, I'm less likely to be stupid. Fiction gives
us the second chances that life denies us."
If he had to give up sex or writing, which would it be?
He looks at me as if I'm crazy. "That's a complete no-brainer."
What, writing?
"Yeah. Although, both are creative." A few minutes later he says:
"I've changed my mind. I think I'd give up sex. Mmm. It depends
on what kind of day you're having.”
Writing keeps him going
(from the Guardian profile: 2003) (Continued)
Writing, he says, is like whittling a stick, a physical pleasure. When he has time,
as he did in Africa, he loves to recopy his work longhand, like a handwriting
exercise in school. Like most writers, he is an impatient reader of his own prose.
"I hate discussing it. I feel as if you have to move on, keep doing it, don't imagine
that you're building some big edifice. You're just writing one thing at a time; that
gives you pleasure, and if it gives you pleasure it must be good."
Does he feel guilty when not working? "Not guilty. Discontented. I feel as if my
mission is to write, to see, to observe, and I feel lazy if I'm not reaching
conclusions. I feel stupid. I feel as if I'm wasting my time."
"People say writing is really hard. That's very unfair to those who are doing real
jobs. People who work in the fields or fix roofs, engineers, or car mechanics. I
think lying on your back working under an oily car, that's a job. There are people
who say, oh, writing's agony -- Naipaul used to say that -- oh, God, the agony! -and I'd say, you want some agony? You want some agony?" A sly smile
surfaces. "Go pick fruit."
The Van Golu
(‘Lake Van’)
Chapter 3, The Great
Railway Bazaar
Using Characters as Story-telling Yarn
Theroux is known for his descriptions of people he encounters -- locals and
tourists (instead of describing all the sights and sounds like a ‘typical’ travel
writer might do)
His evocative and descriptive portraits illustrate the places he visits
effectively because often the characters he chooses to highlight correspond
to the situation or place
p. 57:
“’I beg you to look at this scroll and look at me,” said the antique
dealer in Istanbul’s Covered Bazaar. He flapped the decaying silk scroll at
his ears. ‘You say the scroll is stained and dirty! Yes! It is stained and dirty. I
am forty-two years old and bald on my head with many wrinkles. This scroll
is not forty-two years old – it is two hundred years old, and you won’t buy it
because you say it is stained! What do you expect? Brand shiny new one?
You are cheating me!’
“He rolled it up and stuck it under my arm, and stepping behind the
counter he sighed. ‘Okay, cheat me. It is early in the morning. Take it for
four hundred liras.’”
Varying Sentence Lengths and
Controlling Pace
(p. 57): “Finally I broke away. I had overslept. I was
hungry, and I had provisions to buy for my trip on the
Lake Van Express, which had a reputation for running
out of food and arriving at the Iranian border as much as
ten days late. Food was on my mind for another reason.”
• (p. 67): “He held his head. His children were crying; I
could hear them through the window. The man has a
narrow moustache and his expression was that of the
comedian to whom everything bad happens, the sad
figure who suits comedy. He made another helpless
gesture, somewhat apologetic, and lit a cigarette. Then
he sat back and smoked it. He did not speak.”
Theroux’s transitions are smooth and flowing
(p. 57-58): “I had drawn up a menu for myself… two irresistible ones, ‘Lady’s Thigh’
(Kadin Badu) and ‘Lady’s Navel’ (Kadin Bobegi).
“There wasn’t enough time for me to try more than the last two. I stopped at a coffee
shop on my way to the ferry and wondered if the Turk’s taste in anatomy was
revealed in their choice of names: the thigh was meaty, the navel sweet.”
p. 58: “I had been warned that most of the alley cats were transvestites, who, during
the day, worked as crew members on the Bosporus ferries. (Alley cats are women of
easy virtue/ prostitutes seeking clients on the street)
“I believed that when the epicene voice of a youth in a sailor suit, addressing me
sweetly as Effendi, urged me to hurry as I boarded the ferry for my last trip to
Haydarpasa.” (Epicene means loss of gender distinction… Effendi is a respectful way
of saying Sir in Turkish)
p. 66: After a lengthy but summarizing history passage*, Theroux begins the next
paragraph with a short, present tense (indicating his return to the present): “It is dusk,
the serenest hour in Central Turkey: a few bright stars depend from a velvet blue sky,
the mountains are suitably black, and the puddles near the spigots of village wells
have the shimmering colour and uncertain shape of pools of mercury.”
p. 60: the German-speaking Turk cross-examines him, while the
old man smears spittle on his book, “Little Dorrit”*
p.63: the German marathon runner who could be seen “at any hour
of the day doing isometric exercise in second class.” (Isometric:
muscular actions)
p. 64: the spotty-faced Australian girl
p. 67: One of the subchiefs sits with him. He has “long blond hair in
the page-boy style affected by aspiring prophets. His shirt had
been artistically cut from a flour sack, and he wore… an elephanthair bracelet on one wrist.”
*“Little Dorrit” is a satire on shortcomings of government.
That he includes this may be symbolic of his experiences,
for example: how the Turkish authorities run the railroad.
Interesting inclusion: p.60: “The old man (who spoke no
language but his own) had picked up Little Dorrit and was
turning the pages, marveling at the tiny print and
weighing the 900-page volume in his hand.”
p.58: groups of hippies “fought past soberly dressed
Turkish families”
p. 59: little men in cloth caps alighting from the train, getting
lost in the smoke of cigarettes
p. 59: locals gathering at stations to watch the train pass
p. 61: “There, one saw tall fellows with pigtails and braids,
and short-haired girls who, lingering near their boyfriends,
had the look of pouting catamites.” (Catamite: a young
man who has a sexual relationship with an older man.)
p. 62: teenaged girls who “would eventually appear on the
notice boards of American consulates in Asia” as
missing persons
p. 63: “Moto-Guzzi” t-shirt guy who has a wife and children
in California and is now a leader for some of the girls
(Moto-Guzzi is Italian motorcycle manufacturer)
Images (Continued)
p. 65: looking out the window, “there was little to remark upon. The
landscape was changeless and harsh… from nowhere a little
girl in a charming skirt hobbled with two pails of water, a futile
example of the desert’s emphasis; standing in sluice, like a
weed, was a Turkish man in his pinstripes, woolen golfer’s cap,
V-neck sweater, and tie, his big moustache framing his big grin.”
p.66: the animals and children outside his window: ‘At several
halts children chased the train; they were blond and lively and
might have been Swiss, except for their rags.’
p. 67: the “Saffron-faced” man exhausted from his children
(Saffron is a golden yellow color)
p. 69: his companions in third-class: “bandy-legged gang of dark
Japanese,” “Germanic tribe: bearded boys and porcine girls
with crew cuts” (Porcine means resembling pigs)
p.69: The Australians in second-class: “At my lowest point, when
things were at their most desperate and uncomfortable, I always
found myself in the company of Australians, who were like a
reminder that I’d touched bottom.”
The Mandalay Express
Chapter 17: The Great
Railway Bazaar
p. 203: “I arrived at this hour: the bats were tumbling past the
crows, and the pale yellow sky was inked like Burmese silk
with the brush marks of the black bodies.”
p. 203: “Sule Pagoda Road, with its five theatres, was mobbed
with people, dressed identically in shirt, sarong, and rubber
sandals, men and women alike puffing thick green cheroots,
and looking (as they waved away the smoke with slender
dismissing fingers) like a royal breed, strikingly handsome in
this collapsing city, a race of dispossessed princes.” (Notice
also the incredible pace of this sentence.)
p. 207: “A Buddhist monk went by, smiling broadly. He was a
fat man and he carried his umbrella like fasces, a Roman
senator in an orange toga.” (Fasces is a bundle of rods
containing an ax with the blade projecting, borne before
Roman magistrates as an emblem of official power)
In this chapter, we see a fair amount of dialogue: this one portrays the
detached and nonchalant Burmese attitude.
(At Ticket Window) p. 205:
‘I’d like a ticket to Mandalay.’
‘Sorry, the window is closed.’
But the window is open. I mentioned this
‘Yes, it is open so to say, but it is closed for selling.’
‘You come at six o’ clock, morning time,’ said the second man.
‘Are you sure I’ll get a ticket?’
‘Maybe. Even much better come at five-thirty.’
‘How long does it take to get to Mandalay?’
‘Twelve hours. But it breaks down. You might arrive Mandalay at eight.’
‘Or nine?’
They both laughed.
Or nine, but not later!’
Astute and Telling Observations
p.204: “There were two men at the window. The first said there was no
printed timetable I could buy. The second said, ‘Yes, we have no
timetable.’ It seemed to be the practice in Burma to have two men at
each job, the second to confirm whatever the first said.” (Very true! At the
airport immigration today they still have two people working where in
most countries they only have one.)
p. 208: “I was questioning one of the cardinal precepts of Buddhism, the
principle of neglect. Because no animals are killed all animals look as if
they are starving to death, and so the rats, which are numerous in Burma,
co-exist with the dogs, which have eliminated cats from the country. The
Burmese – removing their shoes and socks for sacred temple floors
where they will spit and flick cigar ashes – see no contradiction. How
could they? Burma is a socialist country with a notorious bureaucracy.”
(Also very true – in terms of the temple floors, at least.)
p. 211: “He was a good Burmese. He could not turn me away, though he did
not want me to stay. He allowed me a little shelter but no food, treating
me, literally, the way he would a pariah, with a kind of grudging
Scene Painting
p. 209-210: “I wandered around the station and heard flutes, gongs,
and the rattle of the snare drum, and there on the road next to the
track a little procession appeared, weirdly lit by a sky layered red.
It marched to the fence beside the track and made a semi-circle
for a small girl, no more that ten years old. She had tucked up her
sarong in a way that allowed her movement and she wore a
delicate beaded cap on her head. The music stopped, then started,
blaring and chiming, and, crooking her hands, the girl began to
dance; she bent her knees, lifting one leg, then the other, in a
jerky motion the swiftness made graceful.
The passengers turned to watch, puffing cheroots from the windows
of the stalled train and strolling closer along the platform. The
dance was for them; there was no talking – only this tinkling music
and the dancing child in that empty place. It continued for perhaps
ten minutes, then stopped abruptly, and the procession trailed off,
the flute still warbling, the drum sounding. It was part of the
Burmese sequence: the breakdown and delay softened by sweet
music, a lovely sky, a dancing child, and then, the unexpected
resuming of the train.”
Class Discussion
• What did you like about the two chapters? How
did you feel when you read it?
• What is your impression on Turkey and Burma?
Of Theroux in those countries?
• How does Theroux use the plot (him on a train) to
guide the story?
• At times the writing is so dynamic it reads like a
novel – how did Theroux achieve such vivid yet
true-to-life writing?
• What was a literary device Theroux used that
jumped out at you?

Paul Edward Theroux - Makerere University