Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Paul Theroux – Travel Writer Extraordinaire!

For me, discovering a new author is like happening upon a gem of a restaurant that serves up a fascinating new concatenation of spices and flavors. Paul Theroux is the flavor of the month for me. I recall that several years ago I read his book about traveling along the perimeter of the Mediterranean – The Pillars of Hercules. I loved the book, and picked up used copies of some of his other titles. These volumes I placed on one of the many shelves in my home that I have mentally labeled: “To Be Read When I Can Find The Time”! In the past few weeks, I took the time to read two of those volumes, and I could not be more pleased.

Let me offer you a soupcon from one of his travel books, and another morsel from one of his novels.

How can you not love a travel book that begins on a cold winter’s day on the Orange Line on Boston’s legendary T – and ends in the wilds of Argentina’s Patagonia region. I have had a fascination with Patagonia since my days of studying French at Governor Dummer Academy under the tutelage of Roy A. Ohrn. R.A.O., as he was called by all the students, had been educated at The Sorbonne, and taught in the classic style. If he caught a student daydreaming in class, he would exclaim: “Monsieur, vous etes en Patagonie!” I am sure this was a subliminal reason for my picking up a paperback copy of Theroux's The Old Patagonian Express – By Train Through The Americas.

* * * * *

Theroux takes us to Guatemala:

“Now there were volcanoes all around us, or volcanic hills with footstool shapes that the Mexicans call ‘little ovens.’ It was cooler, and as the sun grew pinker and a ridge of hills rose to meet it where it hovered drawn to the shape of a chalice, near the Pacific, the gathering darkness threw halftones across the hills. The fragments of white were the hats and shirts of cane cutters marching home. But it was not an ordinary jungle twilight, with the mold of shadow under wide, gleaming leaves, flickering hit fires, and the jostlings of mottled pigs and goats. The sky was in flames far off, and when we came closer, the fire was revealed as enormous: bonfires of waste cane burned in sloping fields and sent up cloud tides that were purple and orange and crimson; they floated and lost their color, becoming white until the night absorbed them. Then this smoke fogged the tracks and it was as if we were traveling on some antique steam locomotive in a mountain pass in Asia, through fog that smelled of stale candy. We roared by and left three men, still hungry on the tracks, ploddingly watching the tail lights wizen and converge, slipping gimleted and neatly out of sight.” (Page 104)

“Churches were built – a dozen of Spanish loveliness, with slender steeples and finely furnished porches and domes. The earth shook – not much, but enough to split them. Tremors left cracks between windows and separated, in the stained glass of those windows, the shepherd from his brittle flock, the saint from his gold staff, the martyr from his persecutors. Christs were parted from their crosses, and the anatomy of chapel Virgins violated as their enameling, the porcelain white of faces and fingers, shattered, sometimes with a report that startled the faithful in their prayers. The windows, the statues, the masonry, were mended; and gold leaf was applied thickly to the splintered altars. It seemed the churches had been made whole again. But the motion of the earthquakes had never really ceased.” (Page 105)

“Anyone who finds a frenzied secularity at a church service in Guatemala – and thinks it should be stamped out – ought to go to the North End of Boston on the feast day of Saint Anthony and consider the probability of redemption n the scuffles of ten thousand Italians frantically pinning dollar bills to the cassock of their patron saint, who is borne on a litter past pizza parlors and mafia hangouts in a procession headed by a wailing priest and six smirking acolytes. Compared to that, the goings-on at La Merced were solemn.” (Page 107)

I admire that kind of writing. It brought back to me the sounds and smells and sights of Haiti, where I lived for a year in the 1970's.

In addition to being a prolific traveler who writes prosaically about his travels, Theroux has penned over a dozen novels, including “The Mosquito Coast” that was made into a film that starred Harrison Ford. I just finished reading "My Secret History" – a thinly veiled fictionalized autobiography of Theroux. He tells the story of a writer from Boston whose habit of living double lives follows him around the world and throughout his life.

Theroux sets an elegiac tone even before launching his story, as he opens the book with this epigram, quoting A.E. Housman:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain:
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

Through the eyes of his protagonist, Andre Parent, Theroux comments knowingly on the complexities of the human condition:

“But nothing is worse than disgrace. It is lonely and irreversible – a terrible mess. The loud snorting laughter it produces is worse than anguish. Having to live through disgrace is worse than dying.” (Page 69)

It is my understanding that Theroux, this son of Boston, now lives in Hawaii. I hope the day will come when he returns to the Hub long enough so we can meet each other and swap stories of our travels while bumping along on the Orange Line!


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