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The Great Railway Bazaar (1975)

by Paul Theroux

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2,637634,653 (3.83)140
"I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it," confesses the author. Take the train with him through Europe and Asia.

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English (53)  Dutch (4)  French (1)  Greek (1)  German (1)  Spanish (1)  All languages (61)
Showing 1-5 of 53 (next | show all)
It was really hard to get through some of this, as the last thing I want in a travel writer is someone who seems bored by everything. Ok, not everything. But too much. I also didn't appreciate the way women were perceived, in general. I actually have preconceived notions about Paul Theroux based on bits and pieces I've read -- never a whole book, sadly. I couldn't get farther in the Mosquito Coast than the first few pages, where the main character describes my hometown as " toilet." Maybe I'm biased. Still, there are quiet moments of beauty and glory here, which made it worthwhile. ( )
  J.Flux | Aug 13, 2022 |
Unlike the Theroux fans, I abandoned this one, not only because it became repetitive and boring,

but because he and his new rich friend abandoned the old man at the station. ( )
  m.belljackson | Jul 10, 2022 |
I've generally liked Theroux's travel books, but this is the weakest I've read. It covers an incredible amount of ground, and there is neither space in the book nor time on his journey to do any of it justice. I enjoy Theroux's occasional misanthropy, but there wasn't even enough of that. The trip feels pedestrian and there is less self-reflection than in Theroux's later books.

> We went on eating and drinking. If there had been a dining car we would have had a simple meal and left it at that. Because there was no dining car we ate all the way to Milan, the fear of hunger producing a hunger of its own. Monique said we were like Belgians, who ate constantly.

> Venice, like a drawing room in a gas station, is approached through a vast apron of infertile industrial flatlands, criss-crossed with black sewer troughs and stinking of oil, the gigantic sinks and stoves of refineries and factories, all intimidating the delicate dwarfed city beyond. ( )
  breic | Aug 3, 2021 |
A travelogue by a misanthrope. The author apparently loves places, but hates people; much of the book seems to alternate between whining about how awful other people are, and how that's making his trip less enjoyable, or mocking people for their habits, ideas, lives. He seems like one of those people that, should you meet in a bar, will be an entertaining companion for 20 or 30 minutes, but the more they talk, the more you wish you'd never struck up a conversation in the first place.

The one exception to all that is Theroux's description of Vietnam and the people there. This was written in 1973, so the war was still going on, and the US had only withdrawn that spring. The author writes here with compassion about the tragedy for so many Vietnamese civilians, the juxtaposition of the country's natural beauty with the ravages of battle that had scarred it. For this one chapter I didn't dislike the author. ( )
  JohnNienart | Jul 11, 2021 |
This is the first book I’ve read by Paul Theroux and I appreciate it so much that I plan to read all his travel books, and perhaps one or two of his other books, some of which have excellent reviews.

He is enamoured of trains and particularly of train journeys. He both begins and ends the book by stating: “Ever since childhood --- I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.”

He has an amazing talent for observing and entertainingly describing his fellow passengers, particularly their special quirks and characteristics.

He talks to his fellow passengers, in fact to practically everyone he encounters, and relates long conversations in detail; some of these people practically tell him, and thus us, their life story. We’re also told everyone’s full names and nationalities, though some of these names may have been changed.

Theroux, though a gifted writer, does not always come across as a pleasant man. One thing I don’t find appealing is that, on the one hand, he informs us that he is married with children, but on the other hand elaborates on his visits to prostitutes, pornographic shows and the like. Of course, he can do what he likes, but why does he have to tell us about it all?

He looks at a woman and thinks “God, the things I could do with her”. Again, we don’t want to know this.

He travels through Asia, through Turkey, India (manages to get to Sri Lanka by train though he’s informed it’s impossible), Iran, China, Afghanistan, Japan, Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, and Russia, all the way to Siberia, which is deadly cold, and where he arrives on Christmas Day. The order in which I listed these countries is probably not the order in which he passed through them, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten several.

It is not always clear which country Theroux is in and sometimes he is so dazed by his traversing so many countries so comparatively quickly that he himself gets confused about which one he’s in.

The title of each chapter is the name of the train, for example, the Teheran Express or the Rajdhani Express to Bombay.

Though he mostly takes and enjoys slow trains, to the reader it feels like he’s rushing through Asia at lightning speed, thus the confusion about which country he’s in.

His descriptions are so vivid that it feels like we’re in the trains with him.

The book was published in 1975 so the journey took place years ago. I can only hope that conditions in these Asian countries have improved since then, but I doubt that this is the case, particularly in these Covid19 times.

In the book he creates a neologism “duffilling” because at the start of his journey a man called Duffill leaves the train to get something or other but doesn’t make it back in time; and in some of these countries the trains stop only for short durations so the author is always afraid of being “duffilled”.

He quotes Michael Frayn – “the journey is the goal”.

Another thing I like about Theroux is that he provides the names of all the books he reads on his journeys, and freely refers to and discusses various books and writers; I thus get to add a lot of books to my reading list. He tells us what the other passengers are reading too, and they often discuss these books and other literature. He seems always to be placed together in the trains with eccentric or other noteworthy individuals though I suspect Theroux would find entertaining and quirky characteristics in everyone, no matter whom.

He transmits entire conversations verbatim (as far as we know), portraying the broken English of those he talks to. He compares passengers and situations to characters and episodes in specific novels.

Theroux does not mince words, He describes people as alcoholics, though he himself is quite a drinker: he drinks his way through Asia and generally finds others to drink with; he drinks at least a bottle of alcohol a day, also hard liquor like vodka. His liver must be quite damaged.

People are not overweight, they are fat, and not plain but ugly (not all of them though, some of the women are absolutely enticing, see above).

At one point he admits he is embarked on a fairly aimless enterprise, “the lazy indulgence of travel for its own sake”.

In Turkey he observes that Turks dress the way people did in 1938, though how he knows this, I have no idea.

Theroux’s style is amusing and often makes me laugh out loud. He tells us that a certain man looked rather pious “but it might have been the train. Second class in that part of Turkey lent to every dusty face a look of suffering piety”.

In Iran, at the evening call to prayer it is “as if the train has been stricken with some strange illness. The passengers fall to their knees and salaam.” In the Night Mail to Meshed all the passengers ride facing in the opposite direction from the one they’re travelling in – “they bob along with their eyes turned to Mecca”.

In Afghanistan “the food smelt of cholera, travel there is uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous, and the Afghans are lazy, idle and violent.” Theroux is here extremely judgmental, but then I’m judgmental about him.

In my youth I had plans to go to Afghanistan but didn’t get that far, for which I’m now grateful after reading this.’’

In the book, Theroux quotes from Harry De Windt’s book ”From Pekin to Calais by land” where he gives us the advice “”N’allez pas là” C’est la morale de ce livre!” – Don’t go there!

And this is also absolutely what I most got out of the present book by Thoreaux, and also his book “Riding the Iron Rooster” which I will presently be reviewing. “”Don’t go to these dirty, poverty-stricken places!””

Theroux turns vegetarian since the meat he saw in India was ”foul”.

Sometimes he researches the history of some of the countries and enlightens us about this, though he doesn’t know nearly as much history as another good travel writer, H. V. Morton, one of whose books I’m presently reading.

In the Towers of Silence in Bombay the Parsis place their dead outside to be consumed by vultures.

We are told, “It is the simplest fact of Indian life that there are too many Indians”.

He quotes Mark Twain as saying that in 1896 there were hundreds and hundreds of people wrapped in blankets sleeping on the Bombay streets. Now they are more numerous and the ones Theroux saw had no blankets.

He tells us that Tamils scrub their teeth with eight-inch twigs. Tamils seem to talk constantly – only tooth brushing silences them. ”Pleasure for a Tamil is discussing a large matter (life, truth, beauty, ‘walues’) over a large meal.”

The Tamils in the train agree that Delhi is barbarous.

In Sri Lanka, which they still call Ceylon, he visits the tombs of Cain and Abel, but the tombs are indistinguishable and the Muslim he asks doesn’t know which is which.

The Ceylonese argue in whispers – they are not an excitable people.

The Ceylonese are starving (when Theroux was there) but there is really no food shortage! There is plenty food, but they don’t want to eat it.

People are starving to death but thirty people have signed up for a seminar on American literature at which Theroux is the principal speaker. It runs out that this is because the seminar includes three huge meals, a free room in a hotel and all the whisky you can drink.

The reason the Ceylonese are faint with hunger is that they have driven out the Tamils who have done all the planting, and they have forgotten how to scatter seeds in the ground which would have given them a harvest. Ha, ha!

The bigger the train, the longer the journey, the happier he is. He prefers to travel for two or three days, reading, eating in the dining car and bringing his journal up to date. He eats the vegetarian special.

A fellow passenger comments, “Did you ever see them preparing the food? They kick it around, step on it, cough on it.” (Glad I’m never going to India, or eating out at all, which we can’t do these days anyway, since all cafés and restaurants are closed.)

Bengalis are the most alert people he has met in India, but they are also “irritable, talkative, dogmatic, arrogant, and humourless”.

In Singapore people are fined for breeding mosquitoes, standing in the lobby of a hotel. “allowing insects to breed or for throwing a piece of paper into a drain.

As regards the latter, perhaps we should introduce and enforce laws in my country, Denmark, too for littering. That would be a good idea.

In Singapore an “alien” can be deported for having long hair, and anyone can be fined up to 500 dollars for spitting or throwing paper in the ground. I assume by “alien” Theroux means “foreigner” and not someone from outer space.

Newspapers are censured and no criticism of the government is tolerated. The government is in complete control. (This may be where we are headed in Denmark, where the PM is becoming more and more dictatorial.)

Theroux finds most Singaporeans to be “rude, aggressive, cowardly and inhospitable, full of vague racial fears and responsive to any bullying authority”.

Vietnam is famous for its beaches!

I have to admit that I can’t recall the difference between North and South Vietnam and Theroux doesn’t really help to enlighten the reader in this respect, but just assumes that we know. We hear a lot about what the Americans did in the war.

He is told that the Vietnamese think that Americans are people totally without culture,

In Tokyo he sees people lying dead drunk on the streets, wherever they were “overcome with alcoholic fatigue”. He tells us that they were casualties of the bonus awarded twice a year to Japanese employees, December being one of these months, and he arrived the day the money was “dished out”.

He sees all the stages of drunkenness, from the early one in which they raise their voices, the one in which they throw up and sing to the one in which they collapse in a freezing street.

The Russians on the train are drunk all the time and drink everything – cognac, sour watery beer, red wine, vodka and champagne.

He comes to resent Russia’s size and wants to go home.

The cook who supplies him with booze beats a woman with his fists and kicks her head.

Re the other passengers, “I passed each one, seeing criminality and fraud in their faces, loutishness in their little eyes.”

To sum up, though I found the book very readable, informative and enjoyable, it was mostly extremely depressing, as you will see from the above.

It shows that humanity is by no means at a high stage of development. ( )
  IonaS | Feb 7, 2021 |
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» Add other authors (17 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Theroux, Paulprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Abreu, FernandaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Godó Costa, JuanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hanssen, TorilTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Koreman, KorTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McLoughlin, DeborahIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Motta, MarisaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"To the legion of the lost ones, to the cohortof the damned,To my brethren in their sorrows overseas . . ."
And to my brothers and sisters, namely Eugene, Alexander, Ann-Marie, Mary, Joseph, and Peter, with love
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Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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"I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it," confesses the author. Take the train with him through Europe and Asia.

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Book description
The meeting of Theroux with Shiva Naipaul, in a hotel in India, is remarkable. His having sex with a women in Swtzerland , (Or it is some other countrt the the Eastern europe, where he withdraws his royalty money from a local publisher) is also remarkable.

Krishna Bhatt. Author.
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Penguin Australia

3 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0141189142, 0141038845, 0143566520

Recorded Books

An edition of this book was published by Recorded Books.

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