Wednesday Writers To Read: Revisiting Paul Theroux

The Old Patagonian Express is a book of geographies, even as Theroux jokingly refers to his occupation as a geography teacher to avoid questions about being a writer. It is a book of divine geography, moral geography, literary geography, and more. While I do find parts of the narrator’s persona troubling in certain areas, I also have to remember that the book came out in 1978.

Beyond that, I was very, very conscious of the geographies he draws as the train meanders south and sideways and backwards and finally to Patagonia. The divine geography he writes of through Mexico—“the pyramids of Mexico—at Teotihuacán and Uxmal and Chichén Itzá—are clearly the efforts of people aspring to make mountains; they match the landscape and, in places, mock it. The god-king had to demonstrate that he was capable of duplicating divine geography, and the pyramids were visible proof of this attempt” (61)”—is echoed in Guatemala, when he considers the earthquakes that splintered Guatemala City, and the effect that those earthquakes had on Charles Darwin. Considering the earthquake that struck while Darwin’s Beagle was moored off Chile, Darwin writes, “‘A bad earthquake…at once destroys our oldest associations: the earth, the very emblem of solidity, has moved beneath our feet like a thin crust over a fluid; —one second of time has created in the mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection would not have produced” (106-7). In San Salvador, the divine geography required human sacrifice—always girls, something I’m curious about, as if a six year old girl was more pure than a male child of the same age (150). This is the direct intervention of the divine world onto the physical world and the way the divine geography is established creates a certain way that the humans live on it.

He mentions the “geography of morality” when he is in Laredo and Nuevo Larero, where the vice of Boys’ Town and the prostitutes were kept behind the river (the Rio Grande), which allowed those of Laredo to pretend that it did not exist. But he writes, “And yet both cities existed because of Boys’ Town. Without the whoring and racketeering, Nuevo Larero would not have had enough municipal funds to plant geraniums around the statue of its madly gesturing patriot in the plaza…and Laredo required the viciousness of its sister city to keep its own churches full” (41). But as Theroux travels south, the churches and cathedrals he visits—they are also among my favorite tourist destinations—he comes to understand something very specific about the relationship of various churches to their landscapes, when he encounters tourists who do not understand—and then complain—about how bloody the Christ figures are in the churches, the opulence of the Mary figures. He rants to these tourists that for Christianity to take hold here, the Christ figures need to be bloodier, because “life is bloodier here” (316). The Indians have endured more pain than Americans, so their Christ needs to have endured even more pain than that. In the same way, “Mary in the Church of San Francisco in Lima, in her spangled cape and brocade gown and holding a silver basket, had to outshine any Inca noble and, at last, any Spanish woman of fashion” (317). Considering a place in terms of the spiritual effect it has on its inhabitants and visitors is not new in the world of travel writing—in fact, such has long been a cliché. What separates Theroux from cliché here is the depth of thought, the grounding in the landscape itself (no pun intended), and the thought process that leads him from the landscape itself out of spirituality and into the realm of how organized religion takes its cue from the place itself. Liberation theology, for example, is particularly popular among Christians in this part of the world, because a view of Christ the Savior is more valuable to them, has more relationship to who they are, than theologies that work better in other parts of the world.

(In Peru, the geography becomes one of mortality, as the altitude sickness makes him wish for death.)

I was also intrigued by the literary geography: Theroux whiled away his train hours reading, yet none of the books he chose to read bore any resemblance to his traveling or the landscapes he was traveling through. But as Theroux found himself in different places, he often thought of them through the lens of a certain writer or a certain book. In Aracataca, he mused on Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and Macondo, of Leaf Storm and One Hundred Years of Solitude. In Columbia, he immersed himself in Boswell: “The book became my lifeline. There was no landscape in it. I had all the landscape I wanted out the window. […] I think if I had not had that book to read as I made my way through Columbia, the trip would have been unendurable” (244). In Patagonia, he reads Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s, as well as Jack London. Perhaps it is most telling when he is able to meet Jorge Luis Borges and the geography of Borges’s library was a great passage. I love to hear—and see—how literary people organize their libraries. It is a geography of its own, especially since Borges was blind. There is, I learned the last time I was in Ireland, a special relationship between a reader and a book when you read it in the place it is set or the place it was written. It’s strangely intimate and overwhelming and it makes me want to visit all the places where the books I’m reading are set, just to see what there is to see when I get there, how the landscape of the book matches (or doesn’t) the landscape under my feet.

The last type of geography I considered did not come until Theroux was in Ecuador, when a Bolivian lady gave Theroux a sage piece of insight: “She explained that there were fewer national characteristics than high-level characteristics. The mountain people who lived on the heights of the Andes were formal and unapproachable; the valley people were much more hospitable, and the sea-level folk were the sweetest of all, though rather idle and lazy. Someone who lived at an altitude of about four thousand feet was just about ideal, a real good scout, whether he lived in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, or wherever” (273). As Theroux continued his journey, thinking about this way of classifying people seemed to make perfect sense, since the borders between Peru and Ecuador are different, depending on the country: “On this man’s office there was a map of Ecuador. But it did not resemble in the least my map of Ecuador. The man explained that it was an Ecuadorian map and that half the territory was actually Peru. Ecuadorian maps of Peru, and the Peruvian maps of Ecuador, were also radically different, each country showing itself as very large and in possession of an Amazonian province” (277-8). It’s a good way to think about how perspective is important when traveling—and when reading (or writing) a travel book. There are always differences of opinion and differences of sight that will never be reconciled.

The Old Patagonian Express was as much a book about place as it was about travel—something that travel books and travel writers always seem to struggle with, if struggle is the right word. Certainly Theroux makes mention of place when he was not on a train and the book itself ends not in a place, but in the nothingness of place. When he considers the placenames in Central America—“La Paz was not peaceful, nor was La Democracia democratic” (81)—he considers the nature of place itself, what it is, which allows him to conclude that the placenames serve another function. Just as the book begins in contemplation about the nature of travel, it ends with ruminations on the nature of place.

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