The Old Patagonian Express

I have just finished Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express, and I like him. A writer will leave behind an impression of himself in his words, and the impression I get of Theroux is of a man sure of himself and who will give it to you straight. For instance, when talking about the music he encounters in south america:

…, all the knee jerking and finger snapping and tooth sucking seemed to have one purpose – a self-induced stupor for people who lived in a place where alcohol was expensive and drugs illegal.

He romanticizes travel in a way that makes me believe I will love it. There are three relationships to control in writing, the writer and his topic, the topic and the audience, and the writer and his audience. Here, the last relationship is operative, and I can imagine him talking to me in person, ending with a nudge and a wink. He quickly overturns the implication of some romantic rendezvous, and the haughty distance with a reader that might imply, by making fun at his expense (you may break my heart and go)

The temporariness of travel often intensifies friendship and turns it into intimacy. But this is fatal for a man with a train to catch. It sounds, as I write this, as if I am coyly hinting that I enjoyed a passionate affair that was keeping me from moving on. (“Just one more day, my darling, and then you may break my heart and go … “)

He is unbelievably well-read. Every so often, he quotes some obscure source when describing the landscape or the people he observes. On a train to Guatemala City, he remarks:

“Old travellers know how soon the individuality of a country is lost when once the tide of foreign travel is turned through its towns or its by-ways,” writes William T. Brigham in his Guatemala. (I think he is the same William Brigham who nearly electrocuted himself in Hawaii when he touched a wooden stick which a native magician had loaded with some high-voltage mumbo jumbo.)

He constantly reads on his trip. He reads on the train when the landscape outside the window becomes repetitive, and each stop blends into each other. He reads when he is stuck in a hotel and there are rats chewing on the ceiling. He reads Robert Louis Stevenson to a blind Jorge Luis Borges, who constantly interrupts him with remarks on how wonderfully a phrase is put.

Such locutions were impossible in Spanish. A simple poetic phrase such as “world-weary flesh” must be rendered in Spanish as “this flesh made weary by the world.” The ambiguity and delicacy is lost in Spanish, and Borges was infuriated that he could not attempt lines like Kipling’s.

Finally, on the last train he will take on his long journey, he dwells on mundane thoughts:

I remembered people who had been cruel to me; I rehearsed cutting remarks that I should have uttered; I recalled embarrassments in my life; I reran small victories and large defeats, … , I told a long humorous story to a large gathering, but in the end the prize went to someone else. I died, and people talked very loudly about me.

He writes that these are the everyday thoughts he has on a typical afternoon of travelling. But yet, he is a fantastic distance away from home, Boston, in a faraway land. There is a familiarity to these thoughts. Hours after the fact, I nurse my wounds and rehearse remarks I should have uttered. My thoughts eventually turn to misanthropy and self-destruction. It is a familiar pattern, nothing but a comforting pretense. 

In the best travel books the word alone is implied on every exciting page, as subtle and ineradicable as a watermark.


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