First published in 1975, this entertaining and amusing book is surely as enjoyable now as it was forty years ago. Veteran travel writer Paul Theroux takes us on an epic rail journey from London, across Europe, and through Asia, and back to London again. He travels on several legendary trains including the Orient Express (conjuring Hercule Poirrot and James Bond), the Golden Arrow, and the Trans-Siberian Railway. He reveals a critical approach to his occupation in a subsequent publication (Ghost Train to the Eastern Star – Chapter 1 The Eurostar): Travel is not merely the business of being bone-idle, but also an elaborate bumming evasion, allowing us to call attention to ourselves with our conspicuous absence while we intrude upon other people’s privacy – being actively offensive as fugitive freeloaders. I can only agree that hordes of camera-clicking tourists are indeed offensive to the locals worldwide, intrusive upon the delicate balance of protected animals in nature reserves, and blatant in their complete disregard for discretion and consideration. “Those horrible crocodiles of tourists, in and out of churches, museums, and mosques.” When in Rome…Theroux himself is often bluntly critical of the peoples he meets: His description of the Japanese as a race obsessed with quirky sexual practices could easily put future travelers off ever going there. (What was he doing in those suspect establishments anyway?)
But the opening lines of the book grip the reader at once, and surely contain notes of familiarity that resonate with us all: “Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished that I was on it.”
The “Bazaar” of the title (“…railways are irresistible bazaars…”) wittily refers to the cavalcade of individuals with whom Theroux comes into contact during his odyssey, whether in a shared compartment, in a train corridor, or in a dining car. He captures his travel companions succinctly and accurately, so that we recognize them at once, possibly from our own experiences and travels. He captures the essence of each character in short, masterful strokes: “A satirical widow in a severe veil … her satchel was full of gin and an inheritance..” or “a man… in his indignant late fifties, wearing a turtleneck, a seaman’s cap, and a monocle was setting up bottles on the windowsill…”. “Each wears a courtly smirk under his mustache”. Conversations are amusingly recounted, and the tedium of mere description enlivened by the regular introduction of dialogue.
His landscapes are equally vivid: “…the train passed fruit farms and clean villages and Swiss cycling in kerchiefs, calendar scenes that you admire for a moment before feeling the urge to move on to a new month.” “The scene was composed like a Flemish painting in which the pissing man was a vivid detail. The train, the window frame holding the scene for moments, made it a picture.” “…the puddles near the spigots of village wells have the shimmering colour and uncertain shape of pools of mercury.”
Theroux recounts his experiences with a wide variety of situations: Starvation takes the fun out of travel…the fear of hunger producing a hunger of its own.” His journey is a varied mix of luxurious old-world comfort, and extreme, third-world discomfort. It often becomes rather an account of the act of travelling than an account of the places he sees.
Every page contains a pretty phrase: “I went to my compartment and lay down, like a Hindu widow on a pyre, resigned to suttee”. But his wry comments turn sour later in the book, and colonialist and sometimes edgy racism seep through, making for uncomfortable reading.
Theroux visibly tires towards the end of his trip: The traveler is the greediest kind of romantic voyeur, and in some well-hidden part of the traveler’s personality is an unpickable knot of vanity, presumption and mythomania bordering on the pathological. This is why a traveler’s worst nightmare is not the secret police or the witch doctor or malaria, but rather the prospect of meeting another traveler. I’m not sure I agree with Mr. Theroux in this respect, as I usually find the tips, advice and anecdotes of fellow travelers quite interesting and useful. But as they say: there is always one (or more) fellow traveler that we find offensive, for their loud ignorant mouth, or disrespect for the physical space or acoustic environment of others.
However, this book is sufficiently engrossing and packed with facts as to be ideal for the armchair traveler, minimizing contact with these individuals to the printed page. For the avid traveler, fearless of upsets and hazards, this book can only inspire one to search for the best deals online, and book at once for the next exciting adventure. But I’m not sure that I would read the follow-up book, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, in which Theroux retraces his steps thirty years later.