THE world’s best known travel writer Paul Theroux has written more than 40 books and the one he sold most was his Asian novel ‘The Great Railway Bazaar.’
One reason for ‘Bazaar’s’ three decades long success was it remains a treasured collection of a period often overlooked by mainstream media.
Very few books about Asia were written during that period about social life in Southeast Asian nations.
And it is still a relevant read today if only to serve as a historical document.
Theroux’s insights from the ground level help explain why things are the way they are today.
For once, it is not written by war reporters about the Indochina War.
It comes from a traveler’s point of view, how Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok looked like when tourism was in its infancy and the Orient remained a mystery.
To be sure, Asia has a special place in Theroux’s heart.
Few people, for instance, know that it was in Singapore where Theroux made the decision to quit teaching and become a writer.
Or that the table, upon which he penned his books, came from Singapore.
Theroux was a modestly paid teaching staff at the National University of Singapore when he concluded that writing books could provide a steady income.
“I thought that if I could write one book a year, that would be enough to live on,” he says during a trip to Bangkok.
As for the table, he says that during the Seventies, you could order a specially made portable table from furniture shops off Orchard Road.
The carpenter is all but gone now but Theroux still has the table. “It costs about US$240,” he says. “It measures 6 foot by 3 foot.
The collapsible table followed “me to London, to everywhere I was, and it is still with me in Hawaii.
“It is incredibly reliable because it possesses ‘fat legs’ that prevent it from rocking or wobbling.”
“It is set a little lower than most tables but comfortable to write and type on.”
Of all his bestsellers, ‘Great Railway Bazaar’ has been reprinted about 60 times.
Theroux also recalls the Seventies as a tough time for countries such as Vietnam.
To get the country to sign a peace treaty, the US ordered what was known as the “Christmas Bombing” in 1973.
Hence the term: “Bomb them to the Stone Age.”
“It is amazing how the country turned around. Today, Vietnam is in a good place.
“In Cambodia, I felt the creepiness. It was a place of death for so many millions of people,” he refers to the Killing Fields.
A Hollywood film based on Theroux’s Singapore novel ‘Saint Jack’ came out in 1979 with Ben Gazzara in the lead role.
But Singapore, sensitive to anything controversial about its past, banned both the film and the book. The ban has since been overturned but Theroux suspects he is still on the watch list.
Upon his recent trip to Asia, Theroux likens himself to a ghost coming back to haunt former hunting grounds.
The writer at 75 says he feels invisible, almost shunned, because of age.
“Elderly people can relate to this feeling. When you are young, you get hustlers coming up to sell you things and wanting to take you to strange places,” he recalls.
“As you get older, it seems people tend not to see you. You are invisible and for the most part ignored.”
But life in Hawaii where he resides, has been kind.
Hollywood continues to make films based on his works.
His books ‘Dr Slaughter’ became the movie ‘Half Moon Street’ with Sigourney Weaver.
‘Chinese Box’ (1997) was made with Jeremy Irons and ‘Mosquito Coast’ (1987) starred Harrison Ford.
It is non-fiction books, however, that proved the most resilient.
Who could forget, for instance, his description of Bangkok in the early Seventies?
He likened the frantic confusion of the old city to the aftermath of an ant-hill that had been stomped on.
The chaos still persists today but in a much kinder form.
The new infrastructures have help commuters, he notes in his sequel to ‘Bazaar.’
Published in 2006 and called ‘Ghost Train to the Eastern Star’ it retraces journeys made 30 years before.
“I first came to Thailand 40 years ago,” says the writer who taught literature at the National University of Singapore from 1968 to 1971.
His trip to Asia followed his stint as a Peace Corp worker that began his involvement in Malawi politics and led to his expulsion in 1965. After two years in Uganda, he travelled to Singapore, which became the backdrop to ‘Saint Jack’ about an American who becomes involved in running a bordello.
“If Jack went there today, he would probably be running a place in Geylang,” he says referring to the entertainment area.’
Top: Paul Theorux once worked at the National University of Singapore and visited Thailand during the Sixties and Seventies.
First and second inset: Theroux’s books: All-time bestseller ‘Great Railway Bazaar’ and its sequel ‘Ghost Train.’
Below: His novel ‘Mosquito Coast’ was among four movies made from his literary works.
By Cimi Suchontan