Sometimes I finish a book and, as much as I enjoyed it, I find I have nothing to say about it. Empty of useful insights, but wishing to draw attention to the book’s greatness (and also, maybe, to prove to the world that I’ve read it?), I resort to quoting from it at length.
So here are some highlights from The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux’s 1975 account of his 24-country grand tour of Europe and Asia.
After travelling by train from London to the eastern frontier of Iran, Theroux finds himself forced to cross rail-less Afghanistan. This is just after the end of the monarchy, but a few years before the communist takeover which inaugurated the current and ongoing round of civil wars:
Afghanistan is a nuisance. Formerly it was cheap and barbarous, and people went there to buy lumps of hashish – they would spend weeks in the filthy hotels of Herat and Kabul, staying high. But there was a military coup in 1973, and the king (who was sunning himself in Italy) was deposed. Now Afghanistan is expensive but just as barbarous as before. Even the hippies have begun to find it intolerable. The food smells of cholera, travel there is always uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous, and the Afghans are lazy, idle, and violent.
In Burma, Theroux watches savage stray dogs fighting for scraps of food thrown from the windows of the moving train:
“Why don’t they shoot those dogs?” I asked a man at Toungou.
“Burmese think it is wrong to kill animals.”
“Why not feed them then?”
He was silent. 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. But it is a bureaucracy that is Buddhist in nature, for not only is it necessary to be a Buddhist in order to tolerate it, but the Burmese bureaucratic delays are a consistent encouragement to a kind of traditional piety – the commissar and the monk meeting as equals on the common ground of indolent and smiling unhelpfulness. Nothing happens in Burma, but then nothing is expected to happen.
Theroux arrives in Vietnam in late 1973, during a moderately sedate interval between the Paris Peace Accord (which ended direct U.S. involvement in the war) and the start of the North Vietnamese offensive which will capture Saigon a year and a half later. Reflecting on America’s pathetic entanglement in the conflict, he writes:
The conventional view was that the Americans had been imperialists; but that is an inaccurate jibe. The American mission was purely sententious and military; nowhere was there evidence of the usual municipal preoccupations of a colonizing power – road-mending, drainage, or permanent buildings… Planning and maintenance characterize even the briefest and most brutish empire; apart from the institution of a legal system there aren’t many more imperial virtues. But Americans weren’t pledged to maintain.
Some [soldiers] watched the train, with their rifles at their shoulders, in those oversize uniforms – a metaphor of mismatching that never failed to remind me that these men – these boys – had been dressed and armed by much larger Americans. With the Americans gone, the war looked too big, an uncalled-for size, really, like those shirts whose cuffs reached to the soldiers’ knuckles and the helmets that fell over their eyes.
[T]he Vietnamese had been damaged and then abandoned, almost as if, dressed in our clothes, they had been mistaken for us and shot at; as if, just when they had come to believe that we were identified with them, we had bolted. It was not that simple, but it was nearer to describing that sad history than the urgent opinions of anguished Americans who, stropping Occam’s Razor, classified the war as a string of atrocities, a series of purely political errors, or a piece of interrupted heroism. The tragedy was that we had come, and from the beginning, had not planned to stay.
(The parallels with more recent events in Iraq are too obvious to bother commenting on. I’ll mention that the people who use terms like “imperialism” when discussing American overseas adventurism are also apt to toss out words like “hubris” and “arrogance”. That’s wrong. Theroux reminds us that America’s empire-builders are actually rather diffident: they don’t put up statues or grand buildings to commemorate their victories; they have no desire to stick around and lord it over the natives; their fondest wish is to pacify whatever goddamn foreign muckhole they find themselves stuck in and get back home to Paducah. The besieged forces of liberalism – or of pro-Western despotism – should always keep in mind before calling Washington for reinforcements: you’ll get five, maybe six years, tops, to wrap up your little war, before the Americans get sick of it all and scoot.)
And finally, on riding the Super Express between Tokyo and Kyoto:
[T]he conductor came by, and when he had finished punching everyone’s ticket he walked backwards up the aisle, bowing and saying, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” until he reached the door. The Japanese have perfected good manners and made them indistinguishable from rudeness.
On a Russian ship crossing the Sea of Japan, Theroux meets an American man and wife who claim to be “into the occult” and proceed to describe a number of supposed supernatural encounters. Theroux, in his turn, narrates M.R. James’ “The Mezzotint” – “the most frightening story I know.” I wasn’t familiar with the story, but it’s available online: a very creepy setup, I found, but the ending is a bit meh. Maybe I’m just jaded.
The last time I read one of Paul Theroux’s travel books, back in 2006, it inspired me to speculate about another of America’s botched nation-building attempts.