The author Paul Theroux talks in an interview about The Tao of Travel, his new book about not just travel, but also people who write and think about it.
The restless mind: the tao of Paul Theroux
Before he was old enough to travel, books were Paul Theroux’s passport to worlds elsewhere. In his delightful new anthology The Tao of Travel: Enlightenment from Lives on the Road, he offers a treasure trove of writing, combining a distillation of observations from his own work and the writing that has inspired him, ranging from mediaeval times to the present-day and including Freya Stark, Rebecca West, Henry Fielding, Samuel Johnson and Dervla Murphy, among others. The book also offers a fascinating journey through Theroux’s own adventurous life, and explores the human impulse to travel at all. At its heart are the joy of travel and the joy of reading about travel.
One of the world’s best-known travel writers, Theroux has been travelling for 50 years and writing about travel for 40, recounting his journeys on every continent except Antarctica in hundreds of essays and eight books, including The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express and Riding the Iron Rooster, which won the Thomas Cook Travel Book award. He has also written fiction, including Picture Palace, winner of the Whitbread Prize for Fiction, and The Mosquito Coast, which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and was made into a film starring Harrison Ford.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1941, he travelled first to Italy after graduating and then to Africa, where he worked as a Peace Corps teacher at a bush school in Malawi, and as a lecturer at Makerere University in Uganda. In 1968 he joined the University of Singapore and taught in the English department.
Theroux discusses his own formative experience of leaving home and journeying through Italy and Africa. “In travel you’re pursuing something but also fleeing something,” he says. “When I talk about leaving home, I really felt liberated by leaving a situation that I found turbulent, hard to understand and that I objected to.” Among the situations he objected to was the war in Vietnam. “I was a demonstrator, a student agitator. I went to Africa feeling that there was something wrong in the United States and there really was something wrong”.
One chapter deals with the idea of travel as an ordeal. “An instance or two of ordeal is in most great travel books,” he writes. That ordeal tests the limits and endurance of the traveller, and in Theroux’s opinion, “a traveller needs optimism and heart, because without confidence travel is misery”. In this way, “the ordeal becomes an adventure, a test of strength and usually has a happy ending”.
He prefers not to carry a camera when he travels as it prevents him looking closely with his own eyes; his memory is the camera. He believes that you can carry what you see in your head, “make a cerebral snapshot, have a vivid memory”, and indeed his narratives are full of vivid linguistic images.
He says the travel narrative, which is the oldest in the world, asks the question: “What am I capable of doing?” Reading about a difficult journey that a traveller has survived can be a comforting experience. “I’m sometimes described as a cantankerous traveller, a grumpy person,” he says. “But I’m not. You cannot be a grumpy traveller. You can write about things critically but when you travel you need to negotiate, have good humour. If you’re a pessimist you won’t leave home. That the path of life is the path of travel is a bit of a cliché but is absolutely true.”
Theroux extols the great virtues of travelling overland, a way to capture the texture and the truth of a country; everything from the changing accents to the subtle variation in landscape. “For me, the mystery of the world is revealed when you’re on the ground. I think that the true character of a country is in the hinterland, where you’re not getting a red-carpet welcome.”
As for the process of documenting his trips, he says writers are separated from non-writers by those who assiduously keep journals. On the road, whenever Theroux gets to a place where there might be a photocopier he posts photocopied pages of what he has written home to his wife. “This enterprise of writing about travel is a very difficult thing; a travel book is often the most minute examination of an autobiography; there’s rarely a time where you account for every moment of every day; life isn’t usually led that way.” In a travel book, however, every moment matters.
Theroux also advocates leaving the mobile phone firmly switched off, rather than being hyperconnected as so many people are in the modern age. Cutting yourself off from home paradoxically allows for vivid -encounters.
The final “tao of travel” is to “make a friend”, and Theroux’s books are filled with marvellous and memorable characters. “Among the most valuable things in my life is making a friend and then revisiting them, seeing that they now have children, for example. You’ve seen the cycle of life. It’s a wonderful thing.”
Theroux also provides some excellent writing advice: “Writing in the present tense calls attention to the writing rather than what is written about. I think this is a lazy way of writing; in the past tense you need to construct it with a little more expertise. You must never call attention to your writing; you call attention to the thing being written about. Bring the reader into the paragraph by writing it well.”
“The storyteller’s intention is always to hold the listener with a glittering eye and riveting tale”, he writes, and indeed he does keep his audience enraptured.