Travel Writing Highlight: Paul Theroux

near Herat
By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

There’s an annual event called the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, that happens over in Denton, Texas. The 2009 edition, which runs July 24-26, features travel writer Paul Theroux. This we learn from Alyssa Aber, spokesperson for the University of North Texas. But we learn even more from George Getschow, who is writer-in-residence and describer of the event. About Theroux, Getschow says, “Readers depend on his uncompromising, sometimes brazen reportage, his witty, acerbic asides and the tremendous breadth of literature he brings to his work.”

He goes on to explain the scope and consequence of Theroux’s work, of which travel writing is only a part, and the aspect of a many-faceted career that interests us. Oh, it’s cool that Theroux is an authority on V. S. Naipaul and Graham Greene. But we like the wheelbarrow full of travel books. This guy has been on a trip in Malawi where he had to go through 14 roadblocks to get from Point A to Point B. He informs us, “The daily annoyance of living in a dictatorship…is like suffering an unhappy family in a locked house.” Theroux is a very smart man who says that watching television results in severe brain trauma.

From Malaysia in 1973, Theroux wrote about a native tree that smells ghastly, but is adored by bats. And about the riots that caused the US military to quit sending its soldiers to Penang for R&R leave, and how this decision caused economic ruin for several hotels, hundreds of trishaw drivers, and most of the hookers.

About another particular place, Theroux says, “Herat is a town of clumsy craftsmen, who have forgotten the fine points of their trade,” and speaks of “women in spooky pleated shrouds.” In 1974, the year after the king was deposed, he arrived in Afghanistan and made the immediate decision to book on out of there ASAP. Due to lack of transportation, he ended up staying a few days, and found the Afghans he met “lazy, idle and violent.” When a seasoned world traveler is so sharply negative about an indigenous population, you have to wonder. On the other hand, the only two local sites he visited were a “hotel” without electricity, water, or food, and an insane asylum.

But if Afghanistan ever pulls itself together, what a great opportunity for literary tourism the country will own. Without even straining, we can think of three books to read before joining up with the traveling book club tour. One is Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner. Two are nonfiction accounts of lives so unfathomably different from Americana that they might as well be fiction: West of Kabul, East of New York by Tamim Ansary, and The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad.

Anyway, back to Paul Theroux. There’s more to this travel writing game than describing one particular place or another. There’s the drawing of conclusions about things that are true everywhere. For instance, here’s a typical Theroux saying: “Any country which displays more than one statue of a living politician is a country which is headed for trouble.

(Speaking of statues, no reader of this page will be surprised to learn that Kevin’s book contains a piece called, “In Search of Frank Zappa: Vilnius, Lithuania.” In fact, he seems to pay pretty close attention to statues, so if sculpture is your bag, some nice discoveries are in store.)

Paul Theroux traveled for many years without a camera, though it doesn’t seem to have been a lifelong rule. The point is, there’s a whole philosophy around being camera-free, having to do with how you don’t really see a thing when there’s a device between you and it. In the spectrum of meditations on the relationship between photographer and subject, the dark end inspires such works as Haskell Wexler’s film Medium Cool, and in fact an entire genre of philosophical fiction and nonfiction devoted to exploring the boundaries of that voyeuristic relationship.

And then, at the other end of the spectrum, there are folks like Kevin Dolgin, who admit to holding the camera backwards. Even this is amenable to a philosophical explanation. Kevin says, “Instead of taking pictures, I have always simply counted on the formation of memories, sitting back from time to time just to reminisce about a place in all its lush (or squalid) detail.”

One of Paul Theroux’s sayings is, “Travel is a creative act.” Another is, “Only a fool blames his bad vacation on the rain.” He also says, “My way of traveling is completely personal.” Exactly. That’s what all these top-drawer travel writers have in common. Nobody else could have done it, seen it, or said, it like they do.

Near Herat photo courtesy of Jayanth Vincent , used under this Creative Commons license

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