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Theroux: Tips and tales

In an entertaining and typically ironic talk in Delhi last week, Paul Theroux did at least two good things. First was the epiphany: Travel writers seldom go back to the places they have written about. Bruce Chatwin never went back to Patagonia. Graham Greene wrote the definitive travel book on Liberia after three weeks in that country (Journey Without Maps) and the definitive travel book on Mexico after a month there ( The Lawless Roads) and never went back to either place. Theroux himself seems to suffer from no such inhibitions. A few years ago he retraced his epic journey recorded in The Great Railway Bazaar that had taken him in the 1960s from London’s Victoria Station to Japan and back through Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian Express. The second time around he could not get a visa through Iran but had the compensation of discovering the several new Central Asian countries that had emerged in the meanwhile. So if he could not drive down the Khyber and take a train through Pakistan to Attari, he flew down to Amritsar from Tashkent — a city one should be able to see, according to Theroux, if only we bothered to stand on tiptoe and peep over the mountains.

No come backs

And why do travel writers hesitate to return? Theroux rather let the question hang in the air, but when pushed agreed that one reason could be the fear of disillusionment, the possibility of being proved wrong. The essence of travel writing is the expression of a sense of place at a particular time and one may never be able to bring in all the elements of a moment together the same way ever again. I wonder often if I were ever to visit Auschwitz again, would I feel the awesome silence and presence of monumental death that I experienced late one summer afternoon, walking through the deserted camp-museum. Or the sense of ancient times that descended out of an incandescent blue sky amidst the sun-bleached ruins of Palmyra, while a small village boy, bribed with a pack of cigarettes, posed for photographs beside a camel. Or the romance of sipping black tea under the arches of an Isfahan bridge, where the waiters jumped over the flowing waters of Zayendeh rud, carrying ornate tea trays and refreshed hubble-bubbles.

The underlying point is emphatic with its potency. Much like one never steps into the same river twice, one can never quite visit the same place again. Something will inevitably be different — not only will the place have changed but so would the writer. In fact, it’s much like visiting a childhood home — the cavernous rooms shrink, the mile-long driveway is not even fifty yards, the distant gate has moved so close.

Theroux’s second good act of the evening was to sign for me two old books of his that I had carried to the talk. A perceptive bystander remarked that though the books were 20 years old, they were in excellent condition. I did not dare confess in the presence of the author that they were also unread. The reason: both the books — The Consul’s File and The London Embassy — deal with diplomatic life. One likes to keep one’s day job separate from the literary life, so having never written about life in embassies, I was a bit hesitant to read about it too. Theroux’s generous autograph helped overcome that inhibition and yielded rich dividends.

Though Theroux, from all I know, has never spent time in an embassy, he reveals a deep inside knowledge of both the humdrum and the more glamorous side of a diplomat’s life. In The Consul’s File, he comes across as a sort of informal Somerset Maugham following a young American diplomat who has been assigned to shut down a consulate in a remote outpost in tropical Malaysia. Ostensibly nothing much should happen in a place with a few shops, a dispensary, a school and a club with its unusable billiards table and leftover colonials. But the Consul finds the undergrowth is alive with tales of love, anger, deception, madness, ghostly visions, sexual scandal. And somewhat reluctantly he starts writing things down … “I considered writing my last resort….Of the three men in the Foreign Service I knew to be writers, two were failures in their diplomatic duties and the third ended up selling real estate in Maryland.”

The writer as craftsman

The London Embassy is, coincidentally, a follow up to The Consul’s File and here Theroux’s protagonist is seen facing the challenges of diplomatic life in metropolitan London, which can be quite different from those in a remote outpost. There are engaging and realistic vignettes of diplomatic life — a welcome reception where the home team sits down for a discussion after the guests have left (Now, how about a real drink?), the tension at the Ambassador’s residence before the Prime Minister drops in for dinner, office politics generated by a telex operator who decides to wear one earring. ….Mix these with adventures involving alluring property dealers and culturally minded ghouls and you have assured entertainment.

In contrast to his persona as a boundless traveller, Theroux does not emerge as a very ambitious fiction writer. The stress rather is on controlled craftsmanship. Stories are collected assiduously and told charmingly. They are linked together by a common character or neatly pinned between the frames of one diplomatic posting. Such craftsmanship is the dream of publishers. No wonder then that Paul Theroux has 43 books to his name in less than those many years of writing!


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