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Down the Yangtze by Paul Theroux

Down the Yangtze

by Paul Theroux

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I am a big fan of travel writing. At its best, this genre can transport the reader to an unknown place thousands of miles away and into the hearts and minds of the people who call it home. Whether or not I have visited the locale before, I always enjoy reading the impressions of a really perceptive outsider and considering how those thoughts link with the place’s past and what they may imply about its future.

By many accounts, Paul Theroux is a marvelous travel writer, both in fictional (The Mosquito Coast) and non-fictional (The Old Patagonian Express) forms. Perhaps that is why I was so disappointed reading Down the Yangtze. Based on a river cruise he took in 1980, the author spends an inordinate amount of time describing his experiences getting drunk and playing cards with the other passengers on board—mostly elderly American millionaires—but very little effort to connect with the people who actually lived there.

This can only be regarded as a lost opportunity and one that led Theroux to miss some profound cultural changes that were happening in the country at that time. Consider, for instance, this conclusion:

In Shanghai, as in other cities in China, the air was bad, it stank…There is little sign of money, no sign of wealth…One can only compare this to the anarchy and distress of India…For these billion people, this is probably the only system that would work. Under capitalism, five percent would be conspicuously rich, and the rest rather poor or very poor, the starving and begging society of China’s past.

or this one:

Any change in China would be for the worst, which is a pity because it seemed so bad when I sailed through it…It worried me that China might never be better than it is now.

Is it possible for someone to be more wrong about the changes that have taken place in China over the past three decades? Although he seems to admit as much in a hastily written Author’s Note appended to the main account, one wonders if such an apologia would have been necessary at all if Theroux had just gotten off the boat a little more often when he had the chance. ( )
  browner56 | Feb 1, 2012 |
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