Paul Theroux’s first travel book The Great Railway Bazaar turns 40 this year, and rereading it is like meeting friends one hopes one will never meet again. Travel friends, like friendships made on a political campaign, are fleeting and slightly useful, and they can either cure or induce boredom within seconds. The benefit of these friendships is that they need not be maintained.
The early stars of the book are the threadbare Duffill, a mystery man bound for Istanbul, and the cheerful Molesworth, a man whose supreme talent is procuring wine. Theroux’s one constant companion is Little Dorrit, and he is constantly kept from Dorrit by passing sights and present smells–there are many unwashed hippies on his trains.
Theroux offers deadpan commentary on the towns and trades visible from his window, and he is best when describing the nameless intruders, whether they are a boy who cries whenever his flirtatious mother gets heated, or a silent Turk who escapes his bratty children to smoke cigarettes alongside a reposed Theroux. Pressed travel on trains forces one to be civil to one’s neighbor, and perhaps it is that civility, forced or forced upon, that once made us better as people.