Blind, or just grumpy?-- on Paul Theroux's travel writing

Paul Theroux had an essay about travel writing in the Guardian recently, as noted by the Complete Review. He's been in the news elsewhere, too, thanks to Patrick French's new biography of V.S. Naipaul (noted by Amitava Kumar), and just yesterday C. Max Magee wrote about The Old Patagonian Express. (The picture of Theroux to the left, with V.S. Naipaul in 1986, is from The Telegraph.)

I haven't read any of his books, but seeing Theroux's name out there reminded me of a spirited exchange between Ilija Trojanow and Alain de Botton from one of my favorite conversations in PEN America 8, "Voyage and Voyeur," which occurred at the New York Public Library in 2007 and also featured Ma Jian and Paul Holdengräber. Trojanow deplores Theroux's style (and champions Naipaul), while de Botton defends it.

The full text isn't available online, but the relevant passage is below. (Ryszard Kapuściński, also mentioned below, looms large in PEN America 8-- the subject of a future post.)

Travel writing must involve a journey which overcomes the ego, a journey where you become an instrument to capture testimonies and voices of “the Other”—voices that usually are not heard. That’s one of the beauties of Kapuściński’s writing—you hear people talk that you normally never hear.

DE BOTTON: Part of what’s nice about Kapuściński is he’s intensely neurotic. He’s always going on about how he hates mosquitoes, how he’s frightened of the dark, he can’t sleep—

I completely disagree. I think those are exactly the sections of Kapuściński where he’s weak. Because it sounds like Paul Theroux, and if I want to read Paul Theroux—

DE BOTTON: What’s wrong with Paul Theroux?

TROJANOW: Oh, I’m sorry—is he a compatriot of yours?

DE BOTTON: No, no. I’m asking a purely innocent question.

TROJANOW: Well, Paul Theroux is the kind of guy who travels to Malawi in a train and looks out the window and then writes about how the people outside all look very dumb and bored and unhappy and Malawi is an unhappy country... I think it’s utterly uninspiring, both as language and as perception... Günter Grass wrote a book about India, for example. I actually went through the book and counted how often he described shit. There are 289 mentions of shit in this small book. If you’re so obsessed with shit, there’s no need to go to India, just describe your own latrine—that would be just as representative of your neurosis. But if you are claiming to describe something out in the world, that’s another matter.

If the people described by Paul Theroux were to read what he’s written about them, they would be absolutely shocked. Because he does violence to them in not showing the diverse dignity of their existence, and in not even trying to understand the way they look at the world.

DE BOTTON: But simply because someone’s rude doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

TROJANOW: It’s not simply rudeness. Blindness is worse than rudeness.

DE BOTTON: But there is the tradition of the travel writer who a) talks about himself and b) is quite grumpy about the countries and people he sees, or she sees, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing... It’s refreshing to read a first-person account that admits there are a lot of awful things—the place might be ugly and limited, et cetera... When people try to write “objective” travel writing, then we’re really in trouble, because what does “objective” even mean?

TROJANOW: It’s not about objectivity, but about disrespecting the culture or the people that they are describing. And how often—just take the body of work of Western travel writing—how often do local people actually speak in their own voices? There’s a beautiful passage in Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now, where Naipaul goes into the Dharavi slum in Bombay and asks one of the people living there, “Can you please describe this lane to me?” He has already described the lane himself, but then the person living there describes it, and his description is completely different. This person sees wealth, he sees social mobility, he sees success, he sees a different world than what the Theroux-type of author would have seen—who would have simply said, “There’s dirt and shit and all these people are useless and can’t get their act together.”

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