Commuting is a parody of travel; it is a bloodless, necessary chore that, because it involves motion, suggests the very freedom it denies. What better place, then, to begin a travel book than a commuter train? The journey becomes a kind of prison break.
This is precisely what Paul Theroux does in The Old Patagonian Express. In what is one of the great opening scenes in all travel literature, the prolific American writer describes being on board a packed local train in his home town of Boston. Winter storm clouds are gathered overheard, the faces of his fellow passengers are ashen or yellow grey because of the cold, but on his face he wears a “vagrant expression of smugness; he seems to have a secret in his mouth — he looks as if he is about to blow a bubble.”
Why? Because for him this is not the commuter train to Sullivan Square or Orient Heights, it is a train to Patagonia, for that is his final destination. Theroux will not stop at the end of this line, instead he plans to switch to another, and then another; and so on, until he leaves the icy cage of domestic North America behind, and is lost into tropical adventure. Already, we are aboard the Patagonian Express.
This beginning typifies much of what people look for in travel literature: escapism. With his pitch perfect evocation a “southbound train” Theroux invites us to share in his fantasy of adventure, only, it is an adventure that he is really about to take.
Fantasy, however, is not a word often associated with Theroux’s writing: curmudgeonly is the adjective more often reached for. In part, this is because of his refusal to provide the tourist board sanctioned version of the countries through which he travels.
Real travel, this book makes clear, is not sunsets over the Amazon, it is dirty Columbian side streets and rabid dogs on the pampas; it is diarrhea, loneliness, and flea-bitten hotel rooms you don’t have the energy to leave. This book is escapism, yes, but with the caveat that the world you are invited into is no less complicated than the one you leave behind.
Theroux, then, is no Chatwin or Kerouac, he has little time for the myth of the nomad or the road. Rather, he travels like we all do: with hope, certainly, but also with discomfort and irritation, acknowledging that what is part travel is part of life. If you do not simply wish to see the world from your armchair, but also experience what seeing the world is like, Theroux is the perfect guide.
But The Old Patagonian Express is not just a book about travelling. It is a book about Central and South America. Such an observation may seem flippant — how could the book not be about the countries Theroux passes through? Yet often travel books can be about little apart from their author: an amalgamation of loosely themed anecdotes sewn together with the prefabricated plot of a journey. Patagonian Express is not this.
Before he leaves, Theroux makes sure to take extensive Spanish language lessons and to read up fully on the countries he plans to visit: information that he dispenses in the form of short-essay like asides throughout the text.
He compares this in depth approach with the more casual one he took when writing The Great Railway Bazaar. Despite the latter book’s renown, Patagonian Express, for its more profound cultural observations, and its excellent articulation of how travel affects both space and time, is by far the superior work.
A Textured Account
This, too, is a storyteller’s book; Theroux travels with a novelist’s eye. Whereas journalists, or even to writers who work more exclusively within the confines of the travel genre, might produce fine pieces of reportage, Theroux is excellent at constructing further layers and extrapolating stories from what he sees.
A fine example of this can be seen in Theroux’s observations on the Mosquito Coast of Costa Rica. This place of derelict villages and ports, of massive ocean waves, and foliage, black before nightfall, Theroux imagines as the perfect refuge for a family of castaways, people fleeing the United States and all its consumerist, technological trappings. To the reader, the Mosquito Coast then takes on a literary quality: is it a paradise, or a heart of darkness?
The book’s climax comes not so much with Theroux’s arrival in Patagonia, but with his conversations with the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, who he meets in Buenos Aires. Theroux describes reading to Borges, who by that stage had gone blind, and of being taken by him arm in arm through the streets of the city.
“Patagonia is dreary,” Borges tells him, appealing for Theroux to stay longer in Buenos Aires; Theroux accepts: he can go to Patagonia the next week.
In this exchange we see one of the book’s central themes: by travelling slowly into the exotic, the exotic itself loses some of its mystery: what is Patagonia but someone else’s dreary commute? This, though, is thrown into relief by the scope of Theroux’s adventure as a whole. Travel is both transcendent and mundane; and anyone reading this book on their way to work will be left feeling an irresistible pull toward changing tracks.