Tuesday, August 26, 2008

On This Day Last Year...

After a cold night in Swakopmund on the coast of Namibia, I drove into the desert at the suggestion of a local white man. I have to go see the black people in this remote area. They don't buy into the begging that so many other black people come to town for. In fact they don't come to town but to sell their lifestock once a year, he told me. They live on their own, he said with approval.

Clustered out on a stretch of grey sand with the backdrop of a ribbon of emerald green and towering red velvet sand dunes, the houses looked to me at first like quilts strung on an invisible wash line, hung out to air. Or Bearden collages.

I parked my little white car and wandered across to the houses where young men gathered around me to ask questions and maybe answer a few, and old women sat in doorways, their elbows on their knees. One old woman took my wrist, like my grandfather used to, and led me to her bedroom inside one of the houses. There was no roof, just a series of scraps flung across the uprights over a tattered, ubiquitous blue tarp. She owned few items, each hung from a nail in the wall. Her bed was off the dirt floor and draped with cartoon sheets, undoubtedly once donated by some western country like the nearby school, water pump and outhouse. She pointed at the vivid blue sky from her bed. I wondered how often it rained there. I wondered how many stars she knew the names of.
Behind some of the houses, more women gathered to cook in a round enclosure made of unfinished logs driven into the sand in a 10 foot diameter circle. Half circles of bark had been nailed on the wind side to protect the fire within. The interior's dark edges hid a bare shelf of three sections of plank nailed together like an upside down U, a few cups and tin plates on top. The women sat on stumps set near the fire and looked at me without expression.

Rusted car frames without Chamberlain's angle.


Theroux Retracing Theroux.

Sunday's NYT book review includes Robert Macfarlane's unkind review of Paul Theroux's newest travel book, "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar."

An excerpt:

Throughout “Ghost Train,” great bubbles of egotism gout to the surface of the prose. One of Theroux’s first thoughts on meeting the Nobel Prize-winning writer Orhan Pamuk is “that he reminded me of myself.” When Theroux gives a talk in Ankara, he notes that “400 people were already in their seats” by the time he arrived. On a train in Thailand he spends “a pleasant hour” watching a fellow traveler reading one of his books, “rapt — or nearly so — chewing her lips as she read.” Theroux humbly remarks of “The Great Railway Bazaar” that it “had done what the written word sometimes accidentally does, worked a kind of magic.” In Moscow, he finds “bookstores with my own books in them, in Russian and English”; and “in one of those stores,” he writes, “I was chatting up a Russian woman, telling her my travels. I told only half of what I’d seen, because she would never have believed me.”

In the book, Theroux retraces the travels of his career-making "The Great Railway Bazaar" from 1975 where he chronicles a four month train trip from London to Japan.

Some months ago, I wrote about how disappointing Theroux's "Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town" was. I read the book because it roughly covers the route that I took through Africa, with some distinctions. I don't know the leader of Uganda and I didn't get a visa for Sudan. Sadly, if I hadn't covered much of the book's territory on my own, and if I weren't writing a travel book myself, I don't think I would have finished reading it. Oh it's a dry slog.

Now, because I did come along some of Theroux's track in the new book, I guess I'll have to read this one and the original. It's hard to find the enthusiasm.

My favorite quote from the review:

Certain writers have a style that can be best likened to body odor: irresistible to some, obnoxious to many and apparently imperceptible to the writer himself. Theroux’s lack of self-awareness, his failure to observe the basic hygiene of modesty, is compelling in its way. How can anyone be this narcissistic, you wonder in disbelief, in appalled fascination.

Mcfarlane closes his review with a comment on Theroux's question to himself at the end of the journey and the book, "What's the big difference between then and now? I knew it wasn't all the changes, big and small, in Turkey or India or Singapore or Vietnam. It wasn't computers of the Internet or high-speed trains, not fast food or cheap wristwatches or everyone wearing blue jeans. The greatest difference was in me. I had survived the long road that led to the present."

Macfarlane writes, "Lucky you, Paul Theroux. It's an exemplary moment in a book defined and driven by egotism. After reading the autohagiography of the Turkmen leader Niyazov, Theroux summarizes it as 'pages and pages ... most of it self-reverential.' He could be writing a press release for his own book."

Note to self: When writing a travel book that is also sort of a memoir, better check the ego somewhere more distant than Siberia.

Travel writers naturally find themselves as the thread, the common theme that holds the tale together. And I can imagine, with all of the adjusting I have faced in the past months since my return, it takes a while to shift the self lens to a healthy level. But I have to agree with Macfarlane, Theroux is a bit of a self-centered sop. How old is he? I wonder if the self-centeredness is evident in the first Railway Bazaar or if the great traveler is now thinking about his many years.

Unfortunatley, I have found little more to love in Theroux's great nemesis, V.S. Naipaul. A good travel writer is hard to find!

If you have any favorite travel writers, besides Heroditus, let me know. I would benefit from reading them.


How Many NFL Fans are McCain Supporters?

My hearty laugh today comes from reading that McCain's September 4 RNC speech is scheduled against the NFL's opening season game of the Washington Redskins vs New York Giants.

Oh, and Hurricane Gustav may be scheduled to hit then too.