Paul Theroux reflects on past travels and looks ahead

For five days, Paul Theroux, the famous US travel writer, ate boiled eggs, microwave and wine. He had escaped in a rented Jeep Compass the day before Thanksgiving, driving from Massachusetts Cape Cod, where he owns a house in Los Angeles, where he handed out boxes of his papers in his Huntington Library archives, and then I fly to Hawaii, his other home.

Theroux said he spotted a landscape largely evacuated by the coronavirus pandemic, from deserted motels in Sallisaw, Oklahoma, and in Tucumcari, New Mexico, where he stopped to sleep, in a Tennessee lounge area where he had his solitary Thanksgiving meal. and In-N-Out Burger in Kingman, Arizona, his last day on the road. Every night, as is his habit, he wrote down everything he had seen.

“It was like a shot at America,” he said in a television interview on the North Coast of Oahu, where he has lived for more than 30 years. Theroux turns 80 in April. For a generation of backpackers that has gone gray, ragged paper bills for their travels through China, Africa and South America have been an adventure product, inspirational books under many mosquito nets.

Paul Theroux: “It is more necessary than ever to find the empathy of meeting another person.” Photo: Michelle Mishina Kunz / The New York Times

He has a new novel by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in April, Under the Wave at Waimea, and his best-known book (and his own favorite among them), The Mosquito Coast, has been adapted into a TV series starring his nephew, Justin. Theroux will also premiere next month.

If this seems like a moment to appreciate a fearless life and an almost extreme writing production, Theroux does not see himself as approaching anywhere. Before the Covid-19 hit, he had plans to go to Central Africa. It is deep in another novel and completes a new collection of stories. He does not seem to be watching the number of books he has written: “Fifty something maybe?” (It really is 56.)

Travel narratives are his signature, a genre he picked up in the early 1970s out of desperation when, as a young novelist with a few books under his belt, he came up with ideas. He decided to cross part of the world by train, starting from London, where he lived, through the Middle East to Southeast Asia, returning to the Trans-Siberian Railway.

The bill that resulted from this tedious journey, the Grand Railway Bazaar, sold over 1.5 million copies and was inspired by bookshelves built on similar ideas.

You just write about the things you see, the things you hear, the things you feel, and when you write it, you are a prophet.

Only in the last decade, Theroux wrote about driving solo through Mexico (he always travels alone) in On the Plain of Snakes (2019). an exploration of some of his country’s poorest areas in Deep South (2015); and a trip to Africa, the last train to Zona Verde (2013), on which he returned to areas he met as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s.

This species – the stranger arrives and offers a rating of the stranger – has lost ground over the years to travel memorabilia such as Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love that describe inland travels as well as people who have encountered places they saw. Theroux, sitting in his office scattered with objects of such travels – tiny Buddhas, the skull of a monkey given to him in Bali, wooden Polynesian weapons – defended his approach.

“It’s more important than ever to find the empathy of meeting another person, who is in another culture, to smell it, to suffer it, to face the difficulties and inconveniences of travel, it all matters,” Theroux said. . He referred to Nobel Prize-winning author VS Naipaul, who at various points in Theroux’s career was a mentor and foe: “I believe that the present, which has been accurately confiscated, foretells the future.”

And Theroux agrees. “You do not need to make predictions,” he said. “You just write about the things you see, the things you hear, the things you feel, and when you write it, you are a prophet.”

Theroux's travel moments sweep his office.  Photo: Michelle Mishina Kunz / The New York Times

Theroux’s travel moments sweep his office. Photo: Michelle Mishina Kunz / The New York Times

But there is not much thirst for prophets these days, especially those who offer judgments of other cultures. Theroux seems to be aware of this, or at least the idea that his way of writing about the world is weakening. His new novel tells the story of Joe Sharkey, an aged North Coast surfer who looks like a character Theroux knows on the beaches near his home. Sharkey strongly feels that he has been overtaken by younger surfers with great suggestions. For him, surfing was a way of life, an existence focused on the dishes of the waves, a devotion to the ocean.

Theroux sees surfing as a metaphor for his life. All he wanted was to be able to write non-stop, without being distracted by car alarms out of his window or bills reaching the post office, without having to do anything else for money, but sitting day by day the day in his office.

In many ways, Theroux has succeeded. But like the surfer beyond his protagonist, he is not immune to being forgotten, with the feeling that the world has become hostile to the pure joy of the waves. There is a fear of being overlooked, unknown.

“I was once a hot shot. “I used to be a punk,” Theroux said. “And whoever was once a punk, in the end you are older, and you see the change of years as it is. We all feel it, every writer. They may deny it. But they do, everyone feels it. “

There are many places I have never been. I have never been to Scandinavia, but I have no desire to go there

There was no sign of Theroux imposing rage. The reviews of his books often touched on their harsh ironic tone, a sense of approval for the people he met and the fantastic characters he created. Take Stephen King’s estimate in The Book Review of the light autobiographical Mother Land from 2017, which King found as an “exercise in confidence and pride”.

Theroux believes that readers may perceive him as unstable, but he believes that the problem may be with readers. “You can not be a grumpy traveler. “You will not get anywhere,” he said. “You will be killed, you will be infected, you will not be able to travel. So you have to match people. I think I’m labeled indifferent perhaps because if you look at things the way they are, and just describe things the way they are, you may be accused of being bad. “

One of his oldest friends, British travel writer and novelist Jonathan Raban, with whom Theroux has exchanged manuscripts over the decades, believes critics have missed a major change in Theroux’s writing.

“Compared to the tone of his previous work, his sarcasm, his sharp observation and always from the point of view of an absolute stranger, Paul has developed a kind of humanity in recent books that I have never seen before,” Raban said. He pointed to a 2019 essay on a pet goose named Willy, which Theroux raised from birth and hugged in his arms as he died, the animal’s blue eyes turned gray, at a time described as sensitive to pain. For Raban, this piece, like Theroux’s previous books, signals an approach closer to the reader.

“From savage sarcasm to tenderness is a very long journey,” Raban said.

Theroux's travel moments sweep his office.  Photo: Michelle Mishina Kunz / The New York Times

Theroux’s travel moments sweep his office. Photo: Michelle Mishina Kunz / The New York Times

Age also played a role. Theroux sees advantages in this, such as the older surfer whose reduced stamina forces him to look for new, smarter ways to drive his dashboard – after all, Theroux points out, he was a man in the late 1940s, Garrett McNamara, who surfed a recorded wave. Theroux can see how traveling as an octogen will have its advantages. In some cultures, the elderly are invisible, a benefit in many situations, he said.

In other places he has visited, the elderly are treated with respect. “Either they jump out of their chair and give it to you, or they just ignore you,” Theroux said. And where would he like to go next? “There are many places I would like to go,” he said.

“And there are many places I have never been. I have never been to Scandinavia, but I have no desire to go there. “What he wants to do is come back. There is value in going back to a country you visited when you were younger. Both mark the time in your life and act as a kind of measure of how a society is changing.

“It tells you about the direction of the world,” Theroux said. “What will happen to the world? And you find that you can do this by visiting a place you know well. Return to England, return to Malawi, return to China, to India. It is exciting. So if you ask me which trip I look forward to: I like going back to places. “- New York Times

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