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Can all this be true? I hope so, and I wish all journeys were as eventful and vibrantly interesting as these! Paul Theroux’s voyage from London, through Europe and into Asia, is a world of great experiences and a joyous celebration of cultures, characters, colours and climates. “The Great Railway Bazaar” has the reader shopping for a myriad of magnificent literary wares at extremely reasonable prices! In fact, “The Great Railway Bazaar” is exactly that – a bazaar: a wonderful collection of colours and experiences almost as if the reader is walking through an oriental market where the traders ply their merchandise and ask the shoppers as enticingly as possible to buy as much as possible! Each place Theroux visits is a different zone of the marketplace and each experience is like entering a stall and bargaining with the vendor. But not like bargaining with a tough stall-owner, attempting to lower the price of an artefact whilst he/she tries to keep it within a respectable profit margin. This is so much easier, the effort is tiny and the artefact (Theroux’s description) is priceless – almost! It’s like a freebee, all readers pay (other than the cost of the book itself) is the straightforward reading of black on white, and the utilisation of their minds to visualise the words! Not for the weak, this is a veritable trial of life as presented through the eyes of the author – filled with his interpretations of what he sees, hears, smells and touches. Readers are also occasionally treated to Theroux’s perceptions of what others (the people he meets) are thinking. And no, he is not (to my knowledge) telepathic! His art extends beyond mere description, and even though he does present his own bias to his experiences, he does not persuade readers into believing his interpretation is correct; he leaves it open to individual interpretations and opinions. By doing so, the
reader is aware of Theroux’s justifiable viewpoint, but is not forced to subscribe to it to enjoy the book. Whilst the majority relates to India and Theroux matter-of-factly displays the country as a myriad of cultures and traditions rolled into one, there is much here which relates to other countries and merely to travelling. In describing India he effortlessly shows how a mix between ancient Eastern traditions and modern beliefs are combined with technological advancements and the ideologies of the Western thought. Some of the experiences are a little dubious, in that it seems a little too much happens, or alternatively, it might be Theroux combined the episodes of several trips into a single cohesive travel book. Either way, I urge potential readers to try and believe all within “The Great Railway Bazaar” is true – willingly suspend your disbelief as it makes this journey far more enjoyable. Theroux’s most notable accomplishment is his ability to fluently transport his readers to a variety of different locations. Whether it is the uncomfortable seat of a bouncy train-ride watching landscapes unfold, or a dusty cityscape of the Orient filled with an affront to the senses, he takes you there (almost as effectively as Thomas Cook!). Being the first travel book I have ever read, I find it impossible to compare “The Great Railway Bazaar” with any other like-minded work; in addition, I have not had the inclination to read other travel books in the fear they will not match up to this! Of course, it is a fairly narrow-minded view, but I find myself in great difficulty in attempting to change. Theroux’s style is incredibly simple to follow despite his sweeping descriptions of landscapes and his in-depth analysis of some of the characters he meets. In many senses, readers might be fooled in to believing they are in fact reading a fictional work – which, of course, makes
the language flow all the more smoothly. If taken at face value, “The Great Railway Bazaar” is merely a factual account of one man travelling from ‘A’-to-‘B’, cataloguing the people he meets in the places he visits. However, there is so much more here than a mere chronological account of a trip abroad. Indeed, Theroux is the master of description and when he verbally illustrates the landscapes he encounters he actually ensures you utilise as many senses as possible in imagining his surroundings. You can visualise the rolling hills and rivers snaking through lush green fields like olive-green ribbons through thick-pile carpet; you can smell the rancid stench of fish markets; hear with clarity the hustle and bustle of bazaar traders and shoppers; you can almost feel the touch of running your hand through reams of fine silks or rough cloths. Theroux uses enough description to hold readers’ interests, and his command of language in this respect is masterful; however, at one or two points he does go a little too far and readers might feel as if the journey has slowed to a snails pace. As these periods are sporadic and infrequent, I advise potential readers to bear with them and follow the trip through to its conclusion. However, a notable point is the lack of satisfactory climax to the book – Theroux returns to his abode via the Trans-Siberian Express, which in itself could be another great journey. Unfortunately, this is not adequately described and for all-intents-and-purposes, his voyage ends in the Orient, so this not really a round-trip – although it is often marketed as such. It could be that Theroux does this intentionally: after all, life is a continuing journey and by not providing a significant closure to “The Great Railway Bazaar” he may be implying he will travel more and document his findings. Regardless, I would have preferred a better ending! If you
have no inclination to travel, “The Great Railway Bazaar” might furnish you with the inspiration to get off your rear-end and get moving. And if you have never had the desire to visit the Orient (or India in particular), be prepared, as it might be the first destination on your itinerary! Because Theroux is a master of description and he entices readers constantly with an urge to go anyplace but where they are! Even if you have not the means to get up and go somewhere, you might as well put your brains to good use by imagining the world with “The Great Railway Bazaar’s” perspective – it might well enlighten you somewhat, and is definitely a doorway into other cultures. Catch Theroux’s train – you will definitely go … somewhere!