Travelogue of a master storyteller

Monday Book Review

April 20, 1992|By Christopher Edgar

To The Ends of the Earth. By Paul Theroux. Random House. 342 pages. $22.00. IN THE best travel writing geography is the last ingredient. A good itinerary is indispensable of course, and a keen eye is a prerequisite for the writer, but those are aspects of the human experience of the journey; the knack for conveying them is as much a fictional asset as a journalistic one. Much dull travel writing, and American travel writing in particular, springs from this confusion of priorities. Too many facts, and too few motives, produce nothing but the literature of good intentions.

Paul Theroux stands as an obdurate exception. In six books -- "The Great Railway Bazaar," "The Old Patagonian Express," "Riding the Red Iron Rooster," "Down the Yangzhou," "The Kingdom By the Sea" and a collection of essays called "Sunrise with Seamonsters" -- he has logged thousands of miles, and lTC almost as many published pages, on five continents. The territory he marks out in these protracted journeys, however -- the railways of Asia, South America, and China the coastline of England and a score of other places -- isn't geographical, but a more intimate, densely imaginative terrain: the freely playing fantasies and shrewdly engaged observations of a long-term solitary traveler. As if to prove this point, he has put together a collection of excerpts from these books called "To the Ends of the Earth." What's left, without the itineraries, is pure sensibility.

Naturally, of course, sensibility and geography reflect each other. Borrowing from the globe-trekking backpacker exodus that started in the 1960s, Theroux's instinct as a travel writer was to shy away from well-beaten paths -- the sightseeing tour, the high-tech wilderness expedition -- and opt instead for the long haul, traveling for extended periods on mass transit through the world of everyday life in foreign lands.

Context held the voluminous originals together: Along with scope and erudition, they offered the suspense, so strongly evocative of real travel, over whether the narrator, armed only with pen and wit and the books he had brought with him, would even survive his trip. "It had to be total immersion," Theroux writes of this choice in the introduction to this volume, "a long deliberate trip through the hinterland rather than flying from one big city to another, which didn't seem to me to be travel at all."

It is just this shrewd vigor, saturated with vinegary intelligence, that makes Theroux so interesting. "My travel book is about my trip, not yours or anyone else's." he writes. "Even if someone had come with me and written about the trip, it would have been a different book."

In the new collection, selections from the six books have simply been pulled out and published, one after another. The immersion is absent, but the persona remains, in a striking catalog of oddities and obsessions that re-creates the perverse pleasures of travel as much as any carefully documented single journey.

Here we have the bemusing spectacle of the naked woman who appears on the floor of Theroux's English hotel room one night, searching inexplicably through his baggage; the pitiable anger and terror of a minor car crash on a lonely plain in Tibet; the thrill of an interview with Jan Morris, the trans-sexual British novelist and travel writer, and the more literary pleasure of an audience with curmudgeonly Argentine short-story writer Jose Luis Borges; the irresistibility of an attempt, albeit a failed one, to find an English prostitute in India; and a score of enigmatic acquaintances, from the mysterious man with an overcoat to a slew of hippies on their way to Nepal.

It's a testimony to the vividness of the writing that you can almost hear Theroux, leafing through one of his own old paperbacks, bracketing off the passages he liked: "take that part," he'd be saying, "Keep that," and "Oh, I like that bit." Like Bruce Chatwin, a contemporaneous British writer, Theroux is keen for the absurd, the off-the-beaten-track, but the eye for detail that in Chatwin verges occasionally on the precious or the magisterial remains, for Theroux, solidly shrewish, realistic, American. Without the format of the longer books, it is the pleasures of the eye that show up here the most, winnowed from pockets full of railway tickets and foreign currency.

Once you've started on these pages, in fact, it's hard to stop -- the vignettes are spicy and addictive. Inveterate browsers, and those too impatient to read the originals, will profit. This book -- or a later, expanded version of it -- may even stand one day as Theroux's masterpiece. The cranky cartoonish innocence that seems clumsy in some of his novels makes these travel works fly. They demonstrate in purest terms how, even against our best intentions, we tend to see the world.

"Some day," Theroux writes in the introduction to this book, "I hope to complete a shelf of travel books, which, between bookends, will encompass the world." "To The Ends of the Earth" gets him no closer, at least in geographic terms, to his goal. Like all victory laps, however, it carries much the satisfaction of the race.

Christopher Edgar is a free-lance writer living in New York City.

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