The places in between by Paul Theroux

There are those who believe that technology has hijacked the whole of the visitable earth, snatched it away, miniaturised and simplified it, making travel so accessible on a flickering computer screen that there is no need to go anywhere except to your room. In a related way, the travel book is believed to have been not just diminished but made irrelevant by the same technology. Since we know everything – the information is easily dialled up – and the world has been so thoroughly winnowed by travellers, what is the use of a travel book? Where on earth would you go to remark each anxious toil, each eager strife, or watch the busy scenes of crowded life? Surely it has all been written.

by Paul Theroux

First published in the Financial Times, 27 May 2011

This isn’t a new conjecture. In 1972, in a blasé magazine piece of postmodernism, entitled “Project for a Trip to China”, the American writer Susan Sontag sat in her New York apartment ruminating on China. Sontag was that singular pedant, a theorist of travel rather than a traveller. She concluded her piece: “Perhaps I will write the book about my trip to China before I go.”

To such complacent and lazy minds, here is a suggestion. Try Mecca. After prudently having himself circumcised, learning to speak fluent Arabic, dressing as an Afghan dervish and calling himself Mirza Abdullah, the British explorer Sir Richard Burton travelled to the holy city of Mecca, a deeply curious unbeliever among devout pilgrims. This was in 1853. He published his account of this trip in three volumes several years later, his Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah. The last non-Muslim to do this and to write about it was Arthur John Wavell, of the distinguished British military family. An army veteran, and farmer in Mombasa, Kenya, Wavell developed an interest in Islam. In order to know more, he disguised himself as a Swahili-speaking Zanzibari, made the pilgrimage and wrote about it in A Modern Pilgrim in Mecca (1912). Wavell took the trip in the winter of 1908-1909, more than a century ago. No unbeliever has done it since. Now there’s a challenge for a technology-smug couch potato who prates that the travel book is over. Of course, this daring trip is not easy. It is, perhaps, not a journey for a gap-year student wishing to make his or her mark as a travel writer but it is a book I would want to read.

Nor has anyone, to my knowledge, gone in the footsteps of Apsley Cherry-Garrard. In the Antarctic winter of 1912-1913, “Cherry” sledged with two other men to observe the rookery of the emperor penguins and to remove some eggs. The six-week journey, pulling the heavy sledges themselves through the ice, was made in pitch darkness and temperatures of minus 79F. The men returned, delirious, starved and near death. How about that for a book?

A few years ago the journalist Tim Butcher attempted to retrace Henry Morton Stanley’s 1877 trip down the Congo River. He made a brave try but he failed. The river is as dangerous as ever, and though there are many friendly Congolese, the hostile ones are better armed than in Stanley’s time and more rapacious. Stanley spent three years on his epic journey – the first traverse and mapping of the continent’s mid-section. Butcher’s Blood River (2007) is a worthy book but it is not Stanley’s Through the Dark Continent (1878). The challenge remains, though God help the traveller who attempts it.

A modern version of Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet (1953) – he was there from 1944 to 1951 – has not been written either and, given the inflexibility, the disingenuousness and iron fist of the Chinese occupation, it would be fascinating. Harrer escaped from a British prisoner of war camp in India to make his trip. In the same spirit, the Italian Felice Benuzzi fled a British internment camp in Kenya to climb Mount Kenya – he did so, through the bamboo groves and the snow, with two fellow PoWs, and they descended to the camp to turn themselves in. He wrote an account of it, a book translated as No Picnic on Mount Kenya (1952). Kenya is full of prisoners and refugees in camps; none of them, so far, has duplicated Benuzzi’s gallant feat.

The people who wonder where the travel book is going should consider where it has been. In the course of compiling my Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road, I have spent the past two years running to my nearest university library, taking out a dozen travel books at a time, reading them, making notes, extracting and typing out the best passages, then returning the books a week later and borrowing a dozen more.

After the first 300 books I was not entirely sure what a travel book is meant to be. Some are heroic jaunts, such as Benuzzi’s; some are ordeals or death marches – Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World (1922), or Geoffrey Moorhouse’s The Fearful Void (1974), the story of travelling for four months in the Sahara, mainly on foot; and some, such as Laurens van der Post’s Venture to the Interior (1952), are merely pretending to be ordeals. Others are best read in pairs, the same trip by fellow travellers and writers, such as Graham Greene’s dark Journey without Maps (1936) and, two years later, his cousin Barbara Greene’s Too Late to Turn Back – her cheerful account of the same trek through Liberia; or Dr Johnson’s Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland (1775), with Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785). Some travel books are reminiscences written long after the fact, such as the wonderful two-volume retelling by Patrick Leigh Fermor of his walking through Europe before the war, A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986).

There are too many categories to list – pilgrimages, both religious and secular; quests for peace of mind or love or a great meal; a search for the perfect wine and food pairing, or the jolliest spa experience. Many – perhaps most – are autobiographical but selectively so. Having a bad time on a trip is helpful. “Literature is made out of the misfortunes of others,” VS Pritchett once wrote. “A large number of travel books fail because of the monotonous good luck of their authors.”

There is a false and snobbish notion that the high watermark of travel writing occurred in the 1930s, with the work of Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Peter Fleming, Robert Byron, Freya Stark and Rebecca West. Certainly in this period there flourished intrepid travellers with great prose styles but style was the important element, and the writers of this time sought to prove their own singularity by placing themselves in stark relief against a landscape that was primitive, or dangerous, or laughable, but in any case emphatically foreign. To my mind, the great travellers of that period and a bit earlier were the field anthropologists Bronislaw Malinowski in New Guinea, Margaret Mead in Samoa, Alfred Métraux in Easter Island, and Claude Lévi-Strauss in the hinterland of Brazil.

In my opinion, the best of travel, and of travel writing – ancient or modern – is a species of trespass combined with true discovery, the wanderer surprised and bringing back news of the outer world. It helps to be Captain Cook, or HM Stanley, or Knud Rasmussen in Arctic Greenland, with their pioneering journeys of discovery. But there are modest and just as readable more recent accounts of travel that evoke a sense of place, such as Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945), Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard (1978), about Nepal and Jonathan Raban’s Bad Land (1996), on Montana.

When I arrived in Africa in the early 1960s, I realised how defective or insufficient the models were – Hemingway posturing and babbling in kitchen Swahili in The Green Hills of Africa (1943), or van der Post making a meal of a simple trip in Nyasaland (where I happened to live). Nothing had prepared me for the weather – it was colder than I had imagined in the Shire Highlands, where villagers went about in woolly jumpers; much hotter than I’d ever been in the far south of the Lower River, a district of bare breasts.

Though I read travel books in Africa, it did not occur to write one. I was struck by Dervla Murphy in Full Tilt (1965), travelling alone, a woman, riding a bike from Europe to India. She was a humble traveller, staying on the ground, making friends. Then there was VS Naipaul’s Area of Darkness (1964), a travel book with a theme – two themes really, the sentimental return to the motherland, the disappointment in the motherland. Naipaul’s book contained convincing dialogue. As a novelist, he was able to bring landscape to life. These were features I had valued in Mark Twain’s and Jack London’s journeys, the novelist’s art applied to travel. This suggested that I might write such a book myself, and that was the origin of my Great Railway Bazaar, which I wrote in 1974.

My travels in Europe and Africa began in 1963, almost 50 years ago. The world was quite different then and so was the travel book – some of them described the Sphinx and the Taj Mahal. In the 1980s and 1990s there was a profusion of travel books. These days, the bookstore browser is likely to yawn, seeing a shelf of them.

So where are we now? Of course, many would-be travel writers are plodding in the footsteps of those who have gone before and repeating or correcting the impressions. An irritating tendency of those books, and of travel pieces in general, is the use of the present tense: “I am on a bus in Bhutan and the woman next to me is smoking a cigar … ” There is a new frivolity in travel books, there is mock-drama, there is obvious embroidering, there is the frivolous quest as a theme. Such books do not interest me at all.

I have a love for reading about a really difficult trip, even better an ordeal. Such books, written with skill and appropriate detail, will always find a public, because they combine travel with problem solving and endurance, and that I suppose is the human condition. These people are suffering for us.

Not long ago, a Nigerian man was intercepted fleeing Libya, where he had been employed as a mechanic in the oil industry. His town was under siege, bombs falling, bullets flying. Prevented from going to Italy, he was being repatriated to Nigeria. He protested, saying, “Send me back to Libya – I would rather go there than home to Nigeria.”

This makes me wonder what Nigeria is like and provokes me to travel there. Around the same time, 1,000 people died in a rural village in Ivory Coast; this was a small news item in the western press, though when one person is injured in Jerusalem it’s on the front page as an outrage. I’d like to know why this is so. The fact that there are far fewer foreign correspondents makes the traveller more necessary as a witness and a reporter.

The world is not as small as Google Earth depicts it. I think of the Lower River district in Malawi, the hinterland of Angola, the unwritten-about north of Burma and its border with Nagaland. Nearer home, the urban areas of Europe and the United States. I do not know of a book that recounts the daily life in a ghetto in, say, Chicago; the secret life of a slum, or for that matter, the anthropology of Muslims on a depressed “sink estate” in the British Midlands.

The world is full of jolly places but these do not interest me at all. I hate vacations and luxurious hotels are no fun to read about. I want to read about the miserable, or difficult, or inhospitable places; the forbidden cities and the back roads: as long as they exist the travel book will have value.

‘The Tao of Travel’ by Paul Theroux is published by Hamish Hamilton


1 thought on “The places in between by Paul Theroux

  1. mgrahamnz

    Thank-you for this very enlightening piece. I’m currently reading Theroux ‘The great Railway Bazaar’ and really enjoying it. Travel is not about what may be discovered, but what is experienced while discovering — something to do with the personal path we travel that either follows or departs from the physical path we tread.


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