The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux (1975) 355 p.

In 1973 Paul Theroux (an American novelist and the father of Louis Theroux) left his wife and children for a while to take a four-month trip across Europe and Asia by train and ferry, going all the way down to Singapore, then looping up through Japan and returning to Europe on the Trans-Siberian Express. The Great Railway Bazaar is a record of this journey, and is considered a classic of travel literature.

Many other reviews I have read deride Theroux for what might charitably be described as a poor attitude. It’s certainly true that he often comes across as unsociable, malcontent and overly negative, but given my own travel experiences I can hardly fault him for that, and I think he makes up for it by being amusing and entertaining. The Great Railway Bazaar is probably the best travel book I’ve ever read (not including AA Gill’s, which are compilations of shorter pieces) because I generally find travel books dull or disappointing. Theroux, however, is an actual author with a beautiful prose style and acerbic wit, thus making his observations worth reading. The Great Railway Bazaar, while it didn’t entrance me, held my attention to the very end.

Incidentally, I suspect that a lot of the readers who hate travel writers who criticise and complain have never left the developed world. Not all of them, but a lot. I don’t understand how anyone could actually spend a significant amount of time putting up with the crime, filth and corruption in the developing world, and not forever more be sympathetic to a travel writer who doesn’t paint the earth as an idyllic playground of beautiful cultures.

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