“The Great Railway Bazaar” by Paul Theroux

In 1973, Paul Theroux was a novelist and out of ideas when he came across my blog and got the inspiration for a trip around the world by train. From the UK, he set out to Istanbul, of course, and then onward to Iran, India, Burma, Malaysia, Japan, with some flights and ferries in between, obviously. On the way back, he took the classic route through Siberia from east to west. He published The Great Railway Bazaar about that  journey and became the famous travel writer that he now is.

Quite why he became so famous is a secret to me after reading this book. I am fanatically railway-minded myself and love the idea, although I am a much slower traveler and would dedicate more than four and a half months to such a trip. But then, Theroux had a wife waiting for him at home.

9780141038841Maybe it’s the style of writing, for that is good indeed. Sadly, though, I got the impression that he didn’t enjoy the trip as much as anticipated, an impression fostered by the ever-increasing complaints the farther he gets east. Fellow travelers will know the old Englishman or American whom you meet on trains or ships, complaining that there is no NFL on television in Tehran or that they have the wrong kind of biscuits in Bombay. Theroux sounds like that kind of person. He complains about the weather, about late trains, about not being able to buy tickets, about the food, and mostly about other people whom he encounters on the train. I almost wished him an accident, to put him out of his misery.

Even worse, many of his remarks and “jokes” are deeply insulting, racist and stupid. He probably thinks he is funny, in a way that Westerners steeped in colonial thinking of superiority play little jokes on everybody who is not a WASP. Once he gets on the Transsiberian, he finds it appropriate to address the Russian passengers as “monkeys”. Decide for yourself if you want to like such a man.

His constantly getting drunk and unsuccessfully trying to cheat on his wife doesn’t help to endear him, either. There is a reason why travel bloggers and writers should remain single.

There is a sequel, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, where Theroux went on a similar journey in 2008. I am curious if he learned anything from his first trip, if he matured, if he has come to realize that non-Anglo-Saxon culture is not inferior. Has anyone read the Ghost Train? I am curious to hear your opinion!


About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
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7 Responses to “The Great Railway Bazaar” by Paul Theroux

  1. Lee says:

    I tried reading Theroux, managed to collect all his books over the years. But I only skimmed the pages and I cannot seem to keep my interest enough to at least finish one of his books. I think I couldn’t finish at least one book of Theroux because there are a lot of times when the comedy feels forced and I did not feel like I was experiencing his journeys while I was reading. I’m more of a house cat but, I know when a travel book is more opinionated than resourceful. Nice to know someone who is bold enough to critique a supposedly well-known travel writer. Cheers.

    • Honestly, I may have skipped a few pages here and there, too, because I felt I wouldn’t miss anything.

      I am going to give one more of his books a try, but your comment doesn’t give me much hope.

      Have you read “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush” by Eric Newby? That also has that British snobbish colonial approach, but it was published in 1958, so it’s maybe more forgivable. And, more importantly, the writer never takes himself too seriously. It’s a very funny travel book.

    • Lee says:

      I have yet to read “A Short Walk in the Hindi Kush” by Eric Newby, the fact that the book was published in 1958 intrigues me. Looking forward to checking the book at the library or book shop. Thank you for the suggestion :-)

  2. I never did think of this book as “unputdownable”. I managed to put it down quite finally in less than a hundred pages. Now I know I wasn’t wrong.

  3. Many years ago I read his book “The Happy Isles of Oceania” and I remember thinking exactly what you mentioned about him being critical of the people and cultures and making lots of unkind comments. I wondered why he was even making the trip.
    A blog in 1973….?

    • I just noticed that I hadn’t even been born yet in 1973.
      On Mr Theroux’ train journey, I got the same impression, as if he would much rather fly home. But because he signed a deal with a publisher, he had to continue.

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