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The Book in the Travel: Paul Theroux's The Old Patagonian Express
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TERRY CAESAR The Book in the Travel: Paul Theroux's The Old Patagordan Express In the United States, if you want to sense the ironic relation between past and present, you read The Waste Land or Ulysses. Abroad, you raise your eyes from your book and look around. —Paul Fussell hat is the status of the book in the travel book? Most writers of travel books, especially if they ttavel in order to write a book, take books with them. Reading provides pace, lends diversion, affords relaxation. Such reading, of course, must be perfectly occasional , incidental, and happenstance. Othetwise, there would be no point in going anywhere in the first place. Even if the purpose of the travel is to produce a book, the very project of ttaveling is unsettled if it gets submerged in reading. Ideally, in fact, it appears bettet for the traveler not to resort to books at all, and certainly not books about present destinations. Pico Iyer, in his recent collection ofAsian travels, Video Night in Kathmandu, is quite explicit about this: "Entire books have been written on even the smallest of my themes, and if I had even tried to keep up with all the literature that comes out every week on China or the Philippines or Japan, I would never have found the time to write a patagraph myself" (24). That is, he would have nevet had the time for the experience which has to be the basis for any paragraph he could write. Like any travel writer, Iyer emphasizes "circumstance," "serendipity," and "caprice." Arizona Quarterly Volume 46 Number 2, Summer 1990 Copyright © 1990 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004- 1 6 10 Terry Caesar His sanction is the sanction of expetience—his experience; the knowledge afforded by the travel text is not abstract and its improvisatory claim is inseparable from the frustrated, dogged, skeptical, ignorant, and necessarily individual knower. Iyer is perfectly consistent with the imperatives of his genre when he presents his text as "just a casual traveler's casual observations, a series of fitst impressions and second thoughts loosely arranged around a few broad ideas." The books or articles he read were merely those "that chanced to come my way, " and the sources of Iyer's "intelligence," he carefully records, were local, and oral, rather than written (24). Howevet, books ate not so decisively waved aside. Not only is there the matter of Iyet's own, which he wants to characterize as both a series of essays and a discursive narrative; more mundane and emotional accounts of Asian journeys have already been written, and, in distinguishing his own from them, Iyer only reveals how deliberately he has read them (26-27) Jdis travel, in this sense, is already satutated in texts before it begins. Furthermore, when it begins, books are to be found, consulted, or at the very least noted everywhere—a dog-eared copy of a Reader's Digest in Burma, a volume entitled Beyond Dumping in China. Iyer reads the autobiography of the Japanese baseball star, Sadaharu Oh, in Japan in order to understand Japanese baseball, and resorts to a pamphlet in Bali in order to learn what the word buta means. On a Chinese train Iyer reads Mishima, in Thailand he reads Greene's The Honorary Consul. At times, all these books are continuous with his experience, at times not. Always, the ubiquitous register of books threatens to qualify, if not undetmine, the authority of experience either by disclosing how so much of it is textual or how so much of it fails to make sense without texts. I want to focus on Paul Theroux's The Old Patagonian Express as a far more self-conscious and exacerbated example of the problem of the book in the ttavel book. Like Iyer, Theroux reads lots of books duting his travel. Unlike Iyer, he is not sure about how they fit. Thetoux's train journey from Boston through Central and South America to Patagonia is in one very fundamental sense the record of a long exploration of the question of why one reads anything at all while traveling. Again like Iyer, Theroux wants to appeat "casual," yet the fact...