Sunday May 7, 2006
BY Y.S. LIM
PAUL Theroux was in town and no one knew about it. Well, he was in Penang for some days and passed through Kuala Lumpur en route to Singapore. Even the Singaporeans might not have known he was on their turf, had his publisher not leaked it out.
(For the benefit of younger readers who may not have heard of him before, Theroux writes best-selling novels and travel books, giving armchair travellers interesting vignettes of people and places all over the world.)
Theroux’s fluid style is a unique mix of the cerebral and the sardonic. His ability to make a scene come alive is akin to the morning sunlight gradually flooding a room. It is not a sudden glare, but a subtle illumination.
His craftsmanship is not limited to his travel tales but extends to his novels and short stories. One of his books, My Other Life, blends fact with fiction, leaving the reader to wonder which parts are autobiographical and which, fiction. His is a lively mind with an ironic sense of humour and a fascination for literary conceit.
As a travel writer, what’s your opinion of TV travel programmes such as those featuring Ian Wright and Anthony Bourdain?
I suppose these shows cater for couch-potato travellers. I don’t watch them but I think they should be taken with a pinch of salt as things are somewhat contrived, there being a camera and a technical crew. These shows don’t bother me as there are different types of travelling. There is “travelling” and there are “vacations” and most people go for vacations. Travelling in the pure sense of the word is a solitary ordeal.
What brings you to this part of the world?
I am travelling to the same places I went to on my trip in 1973, comparing the then and now. Before coming to Singapore, I was in Thailand, Laos, Sri Lanka, India, Turkmenistan, Georgia, Bucharest and Istanbul. Prior to that, I was in London and Paris. There are so many differences. No one had a cell phone then. There was no Internet, no credit card. I was completely disconnected. Things are so different now.
Having said that, I must commend your railway service, KTM. It is very well run. I am an American, and if we had such a service in the United Staes, I would be very proud of it. The station in Butterworth (Penang) was clean, orderly and computerised. I find your country fascinating and well organised, with great infrastructure. And the people are very nice. When I was in Sabah a long time ago, the climb up Mount Kinabalu was simply amazing. You have a wonderful big country and hinterland, with neat little kampungs which I would love to stay in.
I would say live in a place for a year. When you are at one place for a period of time, you get to understand the problems of the people, what makes them tick. You get to relate to them, make some friends.
Everyone has similar problems, such as money problems and so on. You need to experience all the four seasons with them,
see them live, see their crops get planted, cultivated, harvested, marketed. Then
you can truly say you know a little about them.
For example, I would love to live in Penang. It has the same charm and pace of life as Singapore, when I last made my trip there. It has a nice beach. I would love to explore the pre-war shop houses and get to know the local people.
Would you say you are a modern-day Marco Polo?
I wouldn’t say that; you know, he went to jail for a while! But he is a good role model for a traveller. He was not out there to enjoy himself but to learn about the cultures of the people he met. And he came back and related what he saw.
What’s your next project?
As I mentioned, this is the same journey I took 33 years ago. Writing about that will be my next project. I went to all those places but there were some places where I was not allowed in, such as Iran, even though I told them I was supportive of their president speaking his mind and admired him for not being intimidated by anyone!
Would you recommend that journalists go to danger zones to report on what’s really happening there?
Yes, I think they should. There are places in this world where there are dictators and they have secret police operating for them and the people are oppressed and this is not good. So people should know about things like these.
If you had your life to live all over again, would you have chosen any life other than that of a writer?
No, I would not. I would do it all again. Life for a writer can be uncertain and you hope you will be lucky to make a living. I am surprised at how very lucky and how very fortunate my life has turned out to be.