It was winter 1978 when Paul Theroux boarded the commuter rail in Massachusetts, his first of many trains on a journey that would take him from New England to the southern tip of South America. He had no GPS or handy smartphone app to guide him. No social media to source for hotel and food recommendations. He didn’t even have a camera or wheels on his suitcase.
What did he carry? Maps that traced one rail line to the next, a few books some clothes and a pen.
Theroux begins The Old Patagonian Express by reminding us that life is more than a series of arrivals and departures. As a travel writer he’s interested in the act of traveling, “the poetry of departures”, in how you get there as opposed to sweeping descriptions of what a place looks like. When he gets stuck in Cleveland you can measure his grumpiness by the number of times one woman repeats how it’s so cold “They can’t bury people in New York City”.
Because Theroux has chosen the rails as his mode of transportation, he encounters people living through their day-to-day. We take in as many slices of life as we do scenery, noting the differences in culture by their clothing and foods. His descriptions often read like he’s looking in at them through a window and glad to be outside.
We cross from Texas to Mexico by bridge to a place called Boys Town, and so far we’re not impressed.
Months of wintry weather, and rain, and off-season idleness had turned the prostitutes of the Zone into rather woeful examples of demon lovers.
The trains in Mexico (at the time) sound really beautiful. Sold to them from the US when Amtrak discovered the cheap wonders of plastic, Mexican trains had sleeper cars, dining and the mix of metals and carved wood of its original art deco design.
Every page is filled with tableaus that go deeper than passive observation. He thinks about the people and the kinds of lives they live. One man melts glass tubes in a Mexican bazaar then shapes them into identical figures. The sameness of his actions, the wasted artistry, particularly annoys Theroux.
…he labored to make what could have been something beautiful into a ridiculous souvenir.
We’re not yet in South America when he begins to question the wisdom of leaving “order and friends for disorder and chaos”. He doesn’t exactly hop from train to train. Often there’s a night or two in a grimy hotel between connections, and the further south he goes the more dilapidated the trains get. Those that lack glass in the windows often carry passengers without shoes.
He gives us this gem on the music:
Music of this special deafening kind seemed important in Spanish America, because it prevented any thought whatsoever … a self-induced stupor for people who lived in a place where alcohol was expensive and drugs illegal.
Enduring the heat, hunger and lack of conveniences proves to be a practice in stamina. Keeping his brain preoccupied helps. Between Twain and Poe stories, he finds great pleasure in disagreeing with passengers hoping to practice their English with polite conversation. Our author is a little salty and he makes no apologies for it.
A great book pokes your brain into asking questions big and small. My question is: Does Guatemala still smells like sugar cane? I need to know. From his hotel room, he notes tall volcanoes and the affect they have in one of my favorite lines of the book.
Their beauty was undeniable; but it was the beauty of witches. The rumbles of their fires had heaved this city down.
Some of the best parts of the book seem to occur when Theroux is so hungry and sweaty you have to pour yourself a cold glass of white wine. He zooms in to capture specific moments in a way that preserves them in history as well as any photograph can. From the “violent nationalism” at a football match in El Salvador against Mexico weeks before the World Cup, to the wide-spread racism in Panama shown through a chat with one funeral director.
In place of the cathartic moments you may hope to find in gritty travel book, we get the thrill of riding through Barranquilla, Colombian Gold, center of cocaine trade. We get to see this part of the world through the eyes of a great mind. Before his trip, a friend repeats the advice of Lord Essex:
…rather to go an hundred miles to speak with one wise man, than five miles to see a fair town.
For me, the biggest highlight is meeting Borges in Argentina. Imagine sitting in a room and reading Rudyard Kipling poems of Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym out loud. Borges stopping you to point out the best lines, phrases that would be impossible to put so delicately in Spanish. They take walks and dine together, the author delays Theroux an entire week because he likes his reading voice and conversation.
It’s been fun, but we arrive in Patagonia ready to go home. First we have to stop and applaud. Theroux uses only language to take us from one country to the next. The Old Patagonian Express is not very long, but it’s a monster of a book because the language is so rich. You get to read the story of a person’s world in a sentence because that’s how he writes.
I found myself re-reading most chapters, astonished at the level of craftsmanship. What you get when you take the time to study some of these passages is the difference between taking the local over the express. Don’t be in a hurry to reach Patagonia. He wasn’t.
And this is a bit off topic, but I always wondered why wheels on suitcases are a relatively new thing? Now I get it. I am not a light packer, but if you plucked the wheels from my suitcase I bet I would be.