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Travel Books - Theroux's Great Railway Bazaar

The unexpected success, in 1975, of Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar led to a renaissance in travel writing. Theroux’s bestseller was soon followed by successful books from

such talented writers as Bill Bryson, Bruce Chatwin, Colin Thubron, Redmond O’Hanlon, Patrick Leigh Fermor and William Dalrymple. Publishers struggled to keep up with the demand for new travel books and, over the next decade, were putting out almost as many travel books as novels. Theroux accounted for this rebirth as a reaction to the very ordinariness of modern mass tourism, where a traveller could be whisked from home to resort and back again in a cocoon of home comforts, almost as if he had never left his point of origin, except that maybe it was sunnier where he had spent his vacation. “Mock travel has produced a huge interest in clumsy, old-fashioned travel,” wrote Theroux. “It has also given rise to a lively interest in travel literature.”

It was a golden age for the travel writer, but it soon turned sour. As William Dalrymple noted in "The Future of Travel Writing," “[A]fter several hundred sub-Therouxs have written rambling accounts of every conceivable rail, road or river journey between Kamchatka and Tasmania, the climate has long changed from enthusiasm to one of mild boredom…. [T]here is no doubt that travel writing has lost its novelty, and its chic, and is no longer the powerfully prestigious literary force it once was.”

I recently re-read The Great Railway Bazaar and it was worth a second look. It was an oddity when it came out. Theroux decided to write a book about travelling around Asia entirely by train. He never visited the sort of sights mentioned in guidebooks. For example, he never describes the Hagia Sophia or the Taj Mahal or Raffles Hotel. Instead, we get the view of the passing scene from the carriage window and hundreds of entertaining character studies. We learn that trains can teach us much about the countries they serve:

“Thai trains have the shower jar with the glazed dragon on its side, Sri Lankan ones the car reserved for Buddhist monks, Indian ones a vegetarian kitchen and six classes, Iranian ones prayer mats, Malaysian ones a noodle stall, Vietnamese ones bulletproof glass on the locomotive, and on every carriage of a Russian train there is a samovar. The railway bazaar, with its gadgets and passengers, represented the society so completely that to board it was to be challenged by the national character.”

I had forgotten what a funny book it was. And except for a few moments of homesickness, he seemed to be having such a very good time.

Thirty-three years later Theroux decided to retrace the path of his greatest success in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star and we learn that the earlier voyage was not quite as light-hearted as it appeared. In fact, he writes, he did not want to go, but “I had just finished a book and was out of ideas. I had no income, no idea for a new novel, and—though I didn’t know what I was in for—I hoped that this trip might be a way of finding a subject. I had to go…. I made the book jolly, and like many jolly books it was written in an agony of suffering, with the regret that in taking the trip I had lost what I valued most: my children, my wife, my happy household.”

Read The Great Railway Bazaar and then read Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, if for no other reason than to see how much the world has changed in the space of three decades.

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