No One’s Naked Anymore

Paul Theroux – The Wall Street Journal

An excerpt.
…Mr. Theroux, 67, has just written his 43rd book, the melodiously titled “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star,” published last month. In it, he follows poignantly in his own footsteps, retracing — to the extent permitted by political conditions on the ground — the journey he undertook in 1973, which resulted in his peerless, and much-imitated, “The Great Railway Bazaar.”
“Can you imagine, I did that journey back then with no credit cards. I didn’t get an Amex card until the early ’80s. I didn’t have credit. I traveled from London to Tokyo and back just with cash.
“In Iran, in 1973, if you had blue jeans and a watch, people would follow you down the street, saying ‘Please, sir, sell me your watch, sell me your jeans.’ In Mashhad, I sold a pair of jeans for $15, quite a lot of money, because they were real American blue jeans and everyone wanted American blue jeans. It was cool. Hippies would go, and bring three or four pairs and sell them in Iran, in Afghanistan.” All this, he observes, was “pre China and India making clothes. The price of clothes has gone down in the world. Clothes are cheaper everywhere. No one’s naked any more.”
Mr. Theroux is territorial. When I ask him why he undertook his latest journey — expecting him to talk about the need to observe how places had changed — he responds by saying, “I really didn’t want somebody else taking my trip. A lot of travel writers hang their stories on my peg. But I’m still in the business, so it’s something I should be doing.”
And how much has Asia transformed since the last time he traversed the place aboard an iron rooster? “Some places haven’t changed much — Burma, for instance. I still call it that . . . Burma. And the places that have changed radically — like India — were hard to understand. It was hard, hard, to understand where India’s going. The people there are lost in the change. Bangalore, for one, and a lot of other parts of India can’t keep pace with the change. They can’t build roads fast enough, airports fast enough . . . It’s as though they’re all having a nervous breakdown
“But I love traveling in India,” Mr. Theroux continues, “because Indians are approachable. If I were traveling in the U.S. and asked people some of the questions I ask in India, I’d get a very dusty answer. People would say ‘Who are you?’ ‘You work for the government?’ When you’re in India, you can ask, ‘Where do you live, what do you do, how much do you earn, how many children do you have?’ It’s the accessible poor. You can do that in Southeast Asia, too. But in America you can’t. Try asking those questions in Jackson, Mississippi.”
The U.S., Mr. Theroux declares, “is the hardest country in the world for anyone to write about. If I were asked to write a book about America, I wouldn’t know where to begin. Maybe you’d need to move into some part of Arkansas, the way [the anthropologist Bronislaw] Malinowski did with the Trobriand Islanders. You’d go in, and make a plan, and by degrees get acquainted with people. And then you’d probably be able to write. I think Western, industrialized societies create a kind of paranoia, a suspicion of government, a suspicion of strangers.”
Did Mr. Theroux find suspicion of strangers in any country on his latest journey? What about Japan? “Hmm . . . let me think,” he responds, playing with his chin. “Japan doesn’t have suspicion of strangers. They just have an utter lack of interest. They have a settled sense of themselves as an advanced culture, a sense that other people aren’t doing things right. They think their food is best, their way of living is best. They lack space, but in all other ways they feel they’ve got it figured out.”
But then I detect a gleam in his eye — a gleam of mischief, bordering, deliciously, on malice. “Singapore,” he says, stressing the “pore” and raising visions of muggy, tropical discomfort. “Singapore is an example of a place where people are self-conscious in the presence of foreigners, because they feel that you’re going to criticize them for having accommodated themselves to their government and this way of living.
“It’s like a gated community. You go in definitely feeling (a) that you don’t belong there, (b) that they’re not particularly interested in your staying there, and (c) that they’re very, very defensive. They feel they have to explain why they’ve settled for Singapore. And do you know, the sex trade there is booming, but their boast is, ‘These aren’t Singapore girls . . . they’re Burmese, they’re Vietnamese, they’re Filipina . . . but not us!'”
I remark, here, that there’s an awful lot of sex in his latest book. “Sexual inquiry,” Mr. Theroux retorts, swiftly correcting me. “Yes there is, because my theory is that if you go to a place and see how people are relating sexually — at porno shops, clubs, brothels — you have a very good idea of how men treat women in that society, of the lives of women . . . what the childhoods of people are like . . . of the levels of their fantasies and freedoms. It’s a key, almost, to human behavior.”
We talk about the places he could not revisit: Iran, because he was denied a visa; Afghanistan, because of the war; and Pakistan. I remind him of something he wrote in “The Great Railway Bazaar,” a dog-eared copy of which I have brought to our dinner: “Peshawar is a pretty town. I would gladly move there, settle down on a verandah, and grow old watching sunsets in the Khyber Pass.” Mr. Theroux looks forlorn, as if hurt by the vanishing of a world and its ways. “I couldn’t go to Pakistan. I decided that it was not safe for me, as an American. Now there’s a place I would have felt suspicion as a stranger, a foreigner. Peshawar . . . it’s more like the Peshawar of Kipling now.” …
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