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If reading Bill Bryson is like taking a long, warm bath, Paul Theroux is a cold shower. Until Bryson came along, Theroux was probably the best known contemporary travel writer. He's a prolific author, mainly of novels and short stories, but he's been writing travel books like this since the early 1970s. In contrast to Bryson's amiable bumbling and his sometimes whimsical approach, Paul Theroux is an opinionated, even spiky character. Compared to Bryson's flowing, seamless prose, Theroux's writing can seem episodic and disjointed.
Although his prose jumps from place to place, it's only mirroring Theroux's travelling style. In this book, published in 1992, he sets himself the daunting task of taking in the islands of the Pacific, from Australia in the west to Easter Island in the east. That's over 5,000 miles as the crow flies. He visits 51 (count 'em) islands in the process. The book's subtitle 'Paddling the Pacific' tells you the ostensible purpose of his trek - to launch his collapsible 15-foot seagoing kayak from as many beaches as he can - much to the puzzlement of the hotel porters and customs officers who handle the huge canvas bags containing his boat.
He begins his journey in Australia and New Zealand. He has to visit them on a book promotion tour but, at the first chance, he's off, away from the cities and speaking engagements to wander the outback and the wilderness. From there, he heads east via the Trobriands and Vanuatu through Samoa and Tahiti, the Cook Islands and Easter Island,
before heading north to end up in Hawaii.
Right from his first foray into the New Zealand interior, we get the book's main uniting theme: the ugly, corrupting nature of civilisation and redeeming power of wilderness. It might seem a bit rich for an American (Theroux was born in Medford, Massachusetts in 1941) to rant on about crummy suburbs and the colonial crimes of the French and Japanese. But whereas most Americans never set foot outside the US, you sense that Theroux is simply telling the truth, based on his vast experience of the world.
He's not afraid to approach strangers - he must have spoken to literally hundreds of people in the course of these travels alone. But neither is he scared of making enemies. For instance, in Sydney he berates a Pakistani taxi driver, calling him a fanatic for supporting the fatwah against Salman Rushdie. And he's quick to advise a minister on the Solomon Islands on how to get back at the Japanese for exploiting their reserves of timber and fish. He hates New Zealand's suburban atmosphere; mocks their accents as "prim, moribund". "Everyone's wearing old, ill-fitting clothes and sensible shoes," he says. The Maoris, he thinks, are the only people who look right at home. He is contemptuous of tourists ("Tourists don't know where they've been. Travellers don't know where they're going"). Along the way he speaks to everyone from the lowliest beachcomber to the King of Tonga, with whom he is granted a rare audience. He even bumps into the former prime minister of New Zealand on a deserted beach in the Cook Islands.
For a man who can be so candid to strangers, he grants the reader only glimpses of his personal life: his marriage breakdown; his fears about possible skin cancer. You feel he's being guarded, reluctant to reveal too much. He tells us on the first page that he and his wife separated on a winter day in London - natural enough for someone going off to the antipodes. But you realise as you read on, that this is no temporary separation - they have split up. This helps explain his downbeat and slightly irascible tone. Although he does not tell you as much, you infer that the woman he mentions kissing and being happy with at the end of the book became his second wife, with whom he now lives in Hawaii.
Although this is a marathon read (the Penguin edition stretches to over 720 pages), Theroux keeps up the pace throughout. He never dwells on any subject or place for too long and there are plenty of insights, interest and incident: along the way he is threatened, robbed and stung by jellyfish; he catches pneumonia and escapes possible murder. But he makes little of his own troubles. He has a genuine interest in the people he meets, their history, their customs and their beliefs - their disgusting mind-numbing beverages. He constantly asks about their languages, noting similarities between the tongues of the far-flung islands. He even has a set list of words he asks the meaning of in each place.
His wit is subtle and sardonic, dropped in as an aside: take-it-or-leave it, rather than laboured and obvious. He'll make an unexpected reference to a Sesame Street character in a learned discourse on New Zealand fauna. Or he'll recount deadpan an encounter with a tourist: "'You must write Paul Theroux-type travel books,' she said. I said, Exactly, and told her why". When he develops a fungal infection on his penis, he walks into a Fijian doctor's surgery picked at random. The doctor is a young Hindu woman: "Though she was thoroughly professional - or perhaps that was the reason - we seemed for a split second to be enacting exhibitionistic Position Forty-five ("Admiring the Lingam") from the Kama Sutra."
While parts of the book read like a series of random thoughts and jottings, taken straight from his notes, this gives the book an immediacy that more finely-wrought language would lose. In the end you trust Theroux because he does not flinch from the inconvenient reality of some of the places he visits. There may be idyllic beaches and beautiful wildlife, but he also gives you the vandalised, run-down towns and the beaches used as rubbish dumps and toilets. You find yourself in awe of his courage, his knowledge, the impressive breadth of his reading. You feel privileged to have been granted at least a glimpse into the mind and travels of a remarkable man.
Published by Penguin Books - list price £8.99 Best online price - Tesco.com £6.92 (+£2.75 p&p)
(Amended version of a review originally posted on Dooyoo)
Sounds an interesting read, I've not read any of his work before.
kevin121 09.06.2011 00:42
I think it was in this book that he compares suburban New Zealand to driving past south London 'burbs on Sunday outings to the coast with his family when they were younger. May well be true but it still rankles all these years later.