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Paul Theroux: The Bourgeois Beat

The Old Patagonian Express (1979) reconsidered

"I was more interested in the going and getting there, in the poetry of departures"

§ This is a masterpiece by a writer who has written several travel books that have masterful moments, although this is the one I call a masterpiece. Read it shortly after it was published in 1979, thought it was pretty good then -- I mean, who would've dreamed of getting on a subway train in Boston on a snowy day and riding consecutive trains like a Pony Express rider until you reached Patagonia at the southern tip of South America? Was it even possible? It was an incredible idea (not one suggested in any travel brochure) almost as incredible as the 'Long Rider' Aimé Felix Tschiffely's ride from Patagonia to Washington, D.C., in 1925-8, using a pair of gaucho mustang (Criollo) horses, Mancha and Gato. Tschiffely's feat was a masterpiece of human endurance and while his book is a fascinating social document, it lacks the turn of phrase to make it literary; still, it's a classic of a different sort, and makes a good comparison as the terrain covered is almost exactly the same -- different direction and forty years earlier, of course, but almost exactly the same.

I reread Paul Theroux's book recently and realized it was more than just 'good' or 'cool', it was a work written by a writer at full throttle, with a casual intensity that is both documentary and poetry without any phony sense of contrivance -- just like the Maestro, James Boswell, whose London Journal PT reads occasionally as he travels south.

Theroux: Old Patagonian Express

Before, when I first read it, I liked it in spite of myself, although I was hoping for an inexcusable blunder. Theroux was too bourgeois, too quick to judge, too American with his politics and too literary, always going on about the books he was reading as if he was trying to elevate himself into the pantheon. It was a sin, I thought -- these occasional ruminations about books and writing -- rather like those poets who never tire of writing poems about writing poems, a sort of narcissism that artists without a subject or a theme wrap themselves in. Yet behind my aesthetic frown, I liked it; the man was writing about who he was, not who he thought he should be. He wasn't Kerouac, although he moved like Kerouac, let the impressions hit the mind like meteors entering the night sky. His beat wasn't jazz, it was the clip of the carriage wheels over the expansion joints. His game wasn't sex and death but rather politics and death. Yes, I liked it, although I was somewhat annoyed that he had charmed Jorge Luis Borges, the great Buenos Aires poet and short story writer, made their encounter the spiritual climax of his journey. Surely this was too easy, I thought, loading the action with literary journalism. But the plain fact was -- is -- that PT's meeting with the legendary Borges is fascinating, is more than a groupie disciple astralizing with a statue of the Buddha in some dimly lit temple. To begin with, this profiling of the great man is stunning in its dramatic clarity, despite the apartment's chiaroscuro light being tuned to Borges' blindness.

Borges was all the rage in the seventies, emerging from the Argentine wilderness like a Theosophical agent provocateur. He didn't write novels, he wrote poems and stories that had the riddling surrealism and atmospheric metaphysics of a South American Giorgio de Chirico. The Other... the Aleph... the Garden of the Forking Paths... or my favorite, The Circular Ruins (although it was often mocked as New Age trash... Colin Wilson thought it was a lazy rip-off of Calderon's Life Is A Dream). Theroux doesn't mention it either in his conversations with Borges or in his asides while travelling, most likely because he preferred visiting Catholic churches rather than pagan ruins, so probably it isn't one of his favorites. But for me the imagery and the intellectual conundrum presented by the dreamer make it an arcane masterpiece, in the fragmentary way that Coleridge's Kubla Khan is, that is, a vision left on the broken ledge of mysticism.

"By degrees (Borges) turned me into Boswell"

The empathy between Theroux and Borges comes from more than a mutual admiration for Poe and Kipling or a mutual love of English culture -- in 1968 Borges had a gig teaching at Harvard and enjoyed his time there, especially Cambridge and Massachusetts, PT's home state. But Kipling was the visa diplomatique. Paul Theroux had just published a piece on Kipling in The New York Times Book Review which the omnivorous Borges had just read... and wouldn't you know it, PT was the ideal person to read the blind man some Kipling. PT's recounting of these readings in the dim Buenos Aires parlour of the great writer is sublime -- Borges, early seventies, protruding Oedipus eyes, formal suit and tie, sitting attentively in an arm chair as the young Theroux reads stories from Plain Tales from the Hills... does the Maestro interrupt? Of course: "That's good" or "You can't say that in Spanish" with the odd pithy observation thrown in by Theroux himself. The imagery and the atmosphere is like a painting by Vermeer, stillness caressed by light and shadow. And it's no mere dramatization, a passing scene from an esoteric play -- it's a beautiful lesson in the art of three writers -- Kipling, Borges and Theroux.

Kipling, these days somewhat neglected, dismissed as a colonial apologist, was clearly an influence on Borges. Anyone who has read Plain Tales can see its narrative shape in his stories -- the brevity, the oral voice, the subtle humour, the axiomatic moment. Yet there's nothing real about Borges; when you read him, you read what he has read, not what he has seen. His autobiography is a life of books. He completes the sentences of other writers, revises them into a mystic edit of deja vu and new possibility. He is a fantasist of mathematical purity, which places him beyond the usual cultural mash-up of lesser writers. He once said, "I've never written a novel because I think that as a novel has a consecutive existence for the reader it may also have a purely consecutive existence for the writer." Interesting, right? So Borges writes paradigms, not plots. His stories devolve to poetry, to the mnemonic imperative... perhaps the inevitable consequence of his blindness, which he described as not unpleasant but rather beautiful, like a slow dusk descending.

So Theroux reads to Borges, concludes his description with: "I got my jacket from the chair. The white cat had been chewing the sleeve. The sleeve was wet, but now the cat was asleep. It slept on its back, as if it wanted its belly scratched. Its eyes were tightly shut."

Ah... a sly analogue, indeed. The cat... Borges... the 'Other'.

"There is nothing in Patagonia," said Borges, dismissing Theroux's proposed epilogue. Why leave Buenos Aires? You have arrived, senor.

The only books Tschiffely took with him when he set out from Buenos Aires was a copy of Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers and a journal to record his journey in. But he was also packing a Winchester 44, a 12 gauge shotgun, a Smith & Wesson 45, a compass, a pair of goggles and a saddlebag full of silver coins. He wasn't out to meet writers but rather Indian guides for certain sections of the Andes. Deserts, swamps, quicksands, dangerous rivers and dangerous mountain passes require a different talent.

It's a wonder that Paul Theroux escaped from the intellectual spell of old Jorge Luis Borges at all, didn't become his prisoner like the hero of Waugh's Handful of Dust who ends up reading Dickens to an Amazonian headhunter. Fifteen years later, at the end of his Mediterranean tour, PT finds the American writer Paul Bowles confined to a darkened room in Tangier like a wounded fugitive... but this time, despite his admiration for his fiction, PT doesn't stick around. Bowles was old and ill, perhaps a little too insular, too aware of being a legend. Besides, he'd gone native, just like Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka.

PT talks to various Latino writers in some of the countries he passes through, usually at American Embassy/Consulate parties -- he was tapped in, a bonded cultural missionary for whom doors opened if he needed doors opened. He was no outsider, a literary loner who only worked one side of the fence... and can you really criticize him for this? First time through back in 1979 I probably did, saw him as too institutional, not down and dirty like the Beats. He was like a CIA agent, wasn't he, sent to report on conditions in Central and South America with time-outs in any town the Americans had a mission. And he didn't like being called a gringo, did he? Et cetera.

"I gave a lecture in Quito and dined out on it for days, meeting writers and teachers and Coca Cola salesmen" (273)

But the fact is that by the time PT wrote The Old Patagonian Express in 1978 he'd earned his credentials -- several novels, a couple of travel books, one of them, The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), a huge international success, although it cost him his marriage -- a cruel price, so why shouldn't he have a few perks along the way? Even when Jack London went native in the slums of the East End in London to write The People of the Abyss, he could cross to the other side of the river any time he wanted... same with Orwell, when he played being a tramp for Down and Out in Paris and London. Writers are always voyeurs, image thieves, body leapers, eavesdroppers, spies, so why shouldn't PT forage all levels of society? In Ecuador -- of all places, he came across a great character with a great story.

A North Irish priest from Belfast... takes a sabbatical from the sectarian stress -- the paramilitary bombings, the shootings, the knee-cappings that were constant in the early seventies -- and goes to New York, gets a job as an insurance salesman, does well, and when he eventually reports back to Belfast, is sent to Ecuador where he finds a woman. He writes a series of letters, all lies. He returns home, waffles, then quietly resigns from the priesthood, returns to Ecuador, starts a family. All the while he has concealed his "other life" from his mother who, like many Irish Catholic mothers, would die of shame if she knew her "good son" had left the Church. So he had left one emotional prison and entered another (so to speak) although he was happy living in exile -- everyone trusted him, because he had the trustworthy manner of a priest.

So, here it was, it was his turn to confess.

"I tell you what, Paul -- you write it. It would make a good story, wouldn't it?"

So it goes. In the course of a 10,000 mile journey, some characters are just minor props, others stories onto themselves. The American slum landlady in Vera Cruz and her complex tale of Mexican toy boy lovers... a violent soccer game in El Salvador, an American mortician in Panama, the barfly pilot and the fat currency mule in Costa Rica, the German budget traveller in Cusco, some affluent relatives (PT's mother's side is Italian)... yes, he's a very social cat for someone who travels alone. Perhaps it's the stress of 'aloneness' that makes him want to shed his skin now and then, to remove his disguise -- the Latino moustache, the slicked back hair, concealed money belt, vernacular Spanish, leather jacket and waterproof shoes. He's like a pulp fiction double agent in a South American comic book novel... the very thing he hates: "Comics are for kids and illiterates, I wanted to say," he says about an Argentine salesman on El Panamericano. Still, he's in character -- doesn't like jukeboxes either. No hipster here, just a cultural missionary travelling light.

To some extent, Theroux's journey to Patagonia turns out to be an exploration of his Catholic past (or perhaps his moral future) where he skips the pagan ruins, hits the churches of Central and South America, checks the hybrid religious art, buys trophies, makes notes... notes... notes... sits in his seat or compartment, writes, reads, drinks beer, dreams, suffers, dreams, watches, eats... eats (he's never shy about eating anything indigenous... or travelling lst class)... gets sick, gets well, makes it to Buenos Aires, hangs out with Borges, eats steaks, drinks wine, talks the talk, writes it all down... and gets a free ticket from the Minister of (Culture/Tourism) for the last thousand mile leg to Esquel in Patagonia. It's a ridiculous set of contradictions, you think, a life more charmed than Barry Lyndon's or Jan Cremer's.

On the last leg, as he sits idly on the train -- The Old Patagonian Express -- he remembers and fantasizes thus: "I remembered people who had been cruel to me; I rehearsed cutting remarks that I should have uttered; I recalled embarrassments in my life; I reran small victories and large defeats; I imagined being married to someone else, having children, getting divorced; I elected myself president of a banana republic, and tried to cope with a noisy opposition; I went to medical school and set up a practice and carried out tricky operations; I told a long humorous story to a large gathering, but in the end the prize went to someone else; I died, and people talked very loudly about me. It was a fairly typical afternoon travelling."

Brilliant. This droll prose poem, this witty interior monologue, is something all of us occasionally engage in, the psycho-babble of the super ego, the day-dreaming of the Other. Our hero came all this way to end up dreaming nonsense in a shabby railway carriage in the topographical nihilism of Patagonia? Parallel lines brought him here, but as you know, they never converge except in the mind. By now, if not before, it becomes clear that The Old Patagonian Express is a submerged novel, a narrative completed by a "point of recognition" where you, the reader, becomes the hero. It seems lofty to say so, but the narrative is both Homeric and Beat in its sense of endurance, discovery and jive. PT descends to the "underground", takes a commuter train in late winter and begins his Felliniesque journey to Patagonia, a place that is no more than a figure of speech, a Darwinian Eden of the mind. And when he finally gets there -- having survived the grotesque and the sublime -- he finds himself marooned in a minimalist landscape worthy of a Samuel Beckett play or an art gallery in Manhattan.

It's the personalism that makes this book so effective. Like a Beat novel, PT is his own hero, so the narrative is both psychological and visceral (in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star - 2012 -- PT quotes the Spanish filmmaker Almodovar: "If it isn't autobiographical, it's plagiarism."). He suffers heat delirium, altitude sickness, drunkenness, boredom, nightmares, hunger, pettiness, absurdity, frustration... spells of excruciating loneliness... occasional generosity and moments of contemplative rapture. He exists in two parallel landscapes -- the external space that is North and South America, and the internal space that is the books he reads on the trains -- which sometimes blur and fictionalize the experience. In the Andes, he wounds his hand, and this becomes symbolism in spite of himself, a fitting supernatural reward for his monologue defending the mutilated statues of the suffering Christ to a group of American seniors travelling in Peru, the statues' graphic misery seen everywhere in the local Indian churches. Ergo, pain is the trigger of consciousness.

The one thing that isn't "Beat" about The Old Patagonian Express is the lack of sex. Yes, he's a married man. Yes, this is only a partial confession, as all books are. His political sensibility and ethnocentrism -- that judgmental attitude that annoys some of PT's readers -- might be a sublimation of the traveller's sexual hunger; it might be, but if you've read other works by PT, especially his fiction, you know that a pornographic soul exists somewhere in the blue ink. In The Pillars of Hercules (his tour of the Mediterranean) he postulates -- using Spain as an example -- that the soul of a culture is to be found in its pornography. In Spain's case, you suspect he includes bull fighting as part of the Spanish S & M psyche, provides another reason why he dislikes the death machismo of Ernest Hemingway.

PT's non-fiction writing is less self-conscious than his fiction, less guarded, less manipulative. This isn't a criticism, as anyone who has tried writing fiction knows that the exigencies for control far surpass those needed for non-fiction (except, of course, in the legal sense). In The Elephanta Suite (2007) an American business man in Mumbai (Bombay) is lured into a seedy sexual encounter with a teenage girl pimped by her "mother" (if you've read The Eastern Star, PT's redux journey of the one undertaken in The Great Railway Bazaar 1972 you'll recognize the source incident from when he was passing through Bombay and that he actually wrote this novella later on the train through Malaysia and Vietnam), which has the brutal allegorical possibilities of Ugly American imperial overreach, duplicitous indigenous corruption, and Catholic (Christian) Fall into sin and damnation. It's anti-erotic. Here, sex is a cruelty, the lowest form of economic intercourse. The Sicily sex novella The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro is more porno, more Beardsley in its imagery, although the young flesh--old flesh axiom still persists, the sense that sex is corrupting, that it's a bodily function, not a spiritual expression. The gap between vulgarity and beauty is like a loose toilet seat.

"A hangover at 12,000 feet makes one feel close to death" he writes somewhere in the Andes. Good stuff... the line leaves you with vertigo and you're already falling into the ravine. PT writes in the "now" whereas the majority of writers stick to reminiscence (unless they feel threatened) as it's the only way they can find poetry. Somehow PT can find it in the present, which begs the question: when does a report move from documentary to poetry? When does it becomes fiction?

Fiction is the color code of the imagination. Figures of speech make you a liar and a prophet... or perhaps a damn good writer if you know how to use them. Clarity through concealment. In his 1989 novel My Secret History PT more or less removes the mask, travels through some women with a confessional intensity that can be verified by checking the topography against his non-fiction: Medford, Massachusetts; Boston U.; Africa (Peace Corps); Japan/Siberia; England/India. He gives the women names but of course the names have been changed to protect the guilty. And of course you can never be sure if the writer is cheating on some of the fact or the fiction, regardless of whatever genre the book is called. Often the writer doesn't even know. You think Boswell's journals are fact because several remained unpublished for a hundred and thirty years after his death. The outrageous indiscretions and follies of the 1740-69 journal are so vivid it's as if his body has been exhumed to find that his brain is still intact and functioning like a recovered black box.

Yet history makes it fiction, as you have no way of proving the fact.

Boston to Laredo and the border barely registered. Mexico neither, although the sweating jungles of the Yucatan and Chiapas gave him some discomfort. Central America -- pools of volatility and stasis -- a drag. Panama... in those years an American colonial outpost, so some perks. Colombia... now the journey begins in earnest, the sense that finally he has a steady travelling companion: death. Ecuador... like M.C. Escher, you have to go backwards to go forward. Peru... now he's in the catacombs of Catholic fetishism, the Inca ghost, the cruel marriage of Machu Piccu and Rome. Argentina... bourgeois. Patagonia... disbelief. He was warned there was nothing in Patagonia and now he knows.

Tschiffely, somewhere in the Matacaballo desert, Peru:

"My instinct for finding the direction had developed to a notable degree, probably because I had not very much to think about by this time besides keeping the horses' noses facing the right way, but even when I knew exactly which way to go, fogs or darkness... made me think it wiser to wait until I could see."

© LR June 2016

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