Figures in a Landscape: People and Places Essays: 2001-2016
By Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963-65)
Eamon Dolan/Houghton Miffin Harcourt
$28.00 (hardcover), $15.64(paperback), $15.99 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Mark D. Walker (Guatemala 1971–73)
The “Godfather of contemporary travel writing” has probably chronicled more places in the world than almost any other author. This is his third volume of essays, following Sunrise with Seamonsters (1984) and Fresh Air Fiend (2001), for a total of 134 essays written over 53 years.
This new collection of essays is a veritable cornucopia of sights, characters, and experiences covering the globe. The collection includes varied topics and showcases his sheer versatility as a writer.
The title of the book is based on a 1945 painting by the Irish-born artist known for his grotesque, emotionally charged, raw imagery that, according to Theroux, sums up all travel writing and many essays. In the introduction of the book he provides insights into what makes a good travel writer, such as seeing the “underside, its hinterlands, its everyday life” if you want to get at the truth of a country, which is what he strives to do in many of the stories of this book. He also cautions not to be in a hurry when traveling through a new country and always go low-tech.
Theroux goes on with, “The freelancer is guided by curiosity and must, in its pursuit, be uncompromising, never betraying his or her gift by writing badly or in haste . . .” and “At its best, the freelance writer lives a life of happy accidents.” His example is an assignment in China in 1980, on a Yangtze River cruise, which led to more assignments in China and eventually a year- long travel for Riding the Iron Rooster. According to Theroux, one of the advantages in the randomness of this sort of freelance writing life is that one makes a reasonable living without having to, “put one’s work aside and enter a classroom, or apply for a fellowship, or be some sort of consultant . . ..”
His travel essays take us to Ecuador, Zimbabwe and Hawaii, among other places. He even includes a chapter on the theme, “Traveling Beyond Google” where he rails against the “don’t go there” know-it-all, stay-at-home finger-waggers who warn against what are often the best travel experiences. He reminds us how the natural disasters and unprovoked cruelty that one comes across on the road can be “. . . an enrichment, even a blessing, one of the trophies of travel, the life-altering journey.” He was even forced to tell one genial Canadian who was complaining about the horrors in some of the countries he recently visited that the place they were talking about was just a few miles from what a local newspaper labeled, “America’s homicide capital” . . . Camden, New Jersey.
Theroux did heed one finger-wagger in 1973 while passing through Singapore who warned against visiting Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia. He pointed to the difference of traveling in a country where the state of law prevails and one in a state of anarchy, so he went to Vietnam, which wasn’t without risks, as the country was “defenselessly adrift in a fatalistic limbo of whispers and guerrilla attacks . . ..” But the real story wouldn’t actually emerge for another thirty- three years when he returned on his “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star” journey. He returned to Hue, which had been a “hellhole” during the war to find happiness after war and “almost unimaginably, there can be forgiveness.” According to Theroux, “Seven million tons of bombs had not destroyed Vietnam; if anything, they had unified it . . ..” He went on to observe that Hanoi, which had suffered more than most cities from aerial bombardment during the war, looked “. . . wondrous in its postwar prosperity, with boulevards and villas, ponds and pagodas, as glorious as it had been when it was the capital of Indochina, certainly one of the most successful and loveliest architectural restorations of any city in the world.” Lesson learned, “. . . while weighing the risks and being judicious, travel in an uncertain world, in a time of change, has never seemed to me more essential, of great importance, or more enlightening.”
Ecuador and the upper Amazon would be one of the first places Theroux introduces us in search of the “grail of psychotropics”, which was inspired by William Burroughs’ account of a drug search in Peru and down Colombia’s Rio Putumayo in his The Yage Letters. According to these letters, “Yage is yaje, Banisteriopsis caapi: vine of the soul, secret nectar of the Amazon, the shaman’s holy drink, the ultimate poison, miracle cure. More generally known as ayahuasca . . .,” a word Theroux found “bewitching.” This trek would fulfil one of Theroux’s primary reasons to travel, “…to find obstacles, to discover my limits, to ease the passage of time, to reassure myself that innocence and antiquity exist, to search for links to the past, to flee from the nastiness of urban life and the paranoia, if not outright dementia, of the technological World . . ..”
Theroux would consult his fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, friend and “self-exiled writer,” Moritz Thomsen, on the location of “ayahuasqueros” along the river people in eastern Ecuador. He signed up for an “Ethnobotanical experience,” whose organizers characterized it as eight days in the rainforest, for eco-awareness and spiritual solidarity, to learn the names and uses of beneficial plants. They’d live in a traditional village of the indigenous Secoya people on Ecuador’s Oriente region on a narrow branch of Burroughs’ Putumayo, “where the ayahuasca vine clinging to the trunks of rainforest trees grows as thick as a baby’s arm.”
Almost immediately Theroux felt uneasy being part of what turned out to be a “nervous and ill- assorted bunch,” but fortunately he met the “vegetalista,” Don Pablo, who he could trust and according to Theroux, “remains one of the most gifted, insightful and charismatic people I have met in my life.” Theroux even confided in problems writing his latest novel, at which point Don Pablo spoke about the “Eye of Understanding.” “This eye can see things that can’t be seen physically,” he said, “Some people have this third eye already developed. And for others, the Eye of Understanding can be acquired through ayahuasca or some other jungle plants.” On several occasions, Theroux was able to separate from the group with a local guide and learn more about the local culture and topography.
When reflecting on the trip, Theroux realized that it had not been an ethno-botany trip of shamanism as an encounter with child prostitutes, gunrunners, Big Oil, and blighted jungle, a place surrounded by FARC guerrillas. The diminishing number of Secoyas seemed doomed. That village would soon be swallowed by the encroachment of oil people, who were only half a day’s march through the forest.” The trip had offered glimpses of danger, but what separates adventure from disaster, according to Theroux, is that you live to tell the tale.
Theroux’s book includes some gems of literary criticism and reveals real depth about the work of one of my favorite travel authors, Graham Greene, and also of David Thoreau, Joseph Conrad, and Hunter Thompson. Of Graham Greene, Theroux reminds us that he, “. . . lived and thrived, in an age where writers were powerful, priest-like, remote, and elusive . . ..” I’m one of those who worshipped anything Greene wrote, especially Journey Without Maps and Heart of the Matter, since I’d worked in Sierra Leone for several years. Yet Theroux brings a new level of insights into many authors and famous people. In this case, he was familiar with Greene’s official biographer, Norman Sherry, who occupied the same office chair Theroux would hold at the University of Singapore. According to Theroux, “Aware that he led a hidden life, Greene developed a habit of evasion, which was an almost pathological inability to come clean. His secretiveness led him at times to keep a parallel diary, in which he might chronical two versions of his day, one rather sober and preoccupied, and the other perhaps detailing a frolic with a prostitute…” He goes on to say that “Greene was a restless traveler, a committed writer, a terrible husband, an appalling father, and an admitted manic-depressive . . ..”
Much to my surprise, Theroux points out that “Green’s book is an ingeniously worked-up account of only four weeks in the Liberian bush by an absolute beginner in Africa. Greene admits this early on. “I had never been out of Europe before; I was a complete amateur at travel in Africa. The book lacked humor, it was dark and broadly political, according to Theroux, and eighteen months after it was published it was withdrawn due to a threatened libel suit. The book is filled with misinformation and distorted beliefs about Africa, according to Theroux. That Liberia was unmapped, and that cannibalism was a threat, although it was not practiced except in the minds of timid fantasists, whom one does not normally lump together with modern cartographers.”
When Greene returned to Africa in 1942 to do wartime intelligence work, he stuck to Freetown, Sierra Leone, as the backdrop for The Heart of the Matter and, according to Theroux, “Africa is not the subject, but the shadowy backdrop for this essentially inward-looking novel that questions the elements of belief and damnation, heaven and hell.” The reason the book is one of Greene’s best, “is perhaps that he was desperate the whole way through, and that in some important aspects the trip was the fulfillment of his childhood fantasies.” In retrospect, in his seventies, and on the anniversary of this trip, he wrote his cousin Barbara, who made the trip with him, “To me that trip has been very important—it started a love of Africa that has never quite left me . . .. Altogether a trip which altered life.”
Biking enthusiast and comic extraordinaire, Robin Williams, is one of his most fascinating public figures Theroux introduces the reader to, and he could be better understood through psychologist Oliver Sacks, who was also profiled along with Elizabeth Taylor and a Manhattan dominatrix. Initially I was surprised at the profile of Dr. Oliver Sacks until I realized that Robin Williams starred in the Oscar nominated film in 1990 based on his Dr. Sacks book, entitled “Awakening”, which was published in 1973. Although Sack’s story is fascinating, much of what he learned reveal some of the psychological issues facing Williams.
Theroux was fascinated by Dr. Sacks’ “Street Neurology,” which refers to the assessment of a person’s condition after observing their behavior in a casual setting. He said that Sacks has “something of Sherlock Holmes in this shrewd summing up of scattered neurological clues . . ..” Dr. Sacks considered that Sherlock Holmes was possibly “autistic” and Samuel Johnson “tourettic” based on his neurological experience. Sacks proved that a person’s so-called handicap often causes the development of new skills or the discovery of assets. He was a listener of “seismographic sensitivity, a clear-sighted and inspired observer, attentive, with an eloquence that allows him to describe a person’s condition with nuance and subtlety.”
Actually, since the filming of Awakenings, he’d become a friend of Robin Williams and claimed that, “There is no one like Robin.” His insights would inform Theroux’s quest to determine, “Who’s he (Robin) when he’s at home?” After attending Julliard’s in New York City, Williams found that he expressed himself with the greatest freedom in stand-up comedy, especially late night comedy clubs, with such a crazed take on the world he seemed like a Martian, which led to his first success, Mork & Mindy (1978-1982). This period included a coked-out life marked by the death of his close friend, John Belushi, from a drug overdose. Williams freely admitted his lifestyle was self-destructive, which included excessive cocaine use and bingeing in general. Include heavy drinking, grossly overweight, using cocaine, under exercised, no discipline, “Just parties”— his self-esteem was low and he fortified his ego with performances in comedy clubs — the Comedy Store and the Improv.
During a day of biking with Williams in Marin County, Theroux got to know him better and was convinced that if he were not able to move people to laughter, he would be nearly “defenseless.” Dr. Sacks considered Robin” hyperspontaneious,” and suggested that he verges on the Tourettic, given to alarming impulses and wild associations, those same shouts and barks. “He is never better than doing stand-up comedy in front of a live nightclub audience. It is vivid and transcendent obscenity.” He went on to say, “Anarchic wit is not possible without experience of a very dark side.” When Theroux requested clarification, Dr. Sacks said, “There must have been grim and difficult passages in his past.” Both Dr. Sacks and Theroux identified many of the factors that led to Williams’ tragic death by hanging in 2014, and although this essay was evidently written before his death, since the essays in this book go as far as 2016, a “post script” from Theroux summing up Williams’ life and the tragic circumstances of his death would have been helpful.
One of Theroux’s several stories in Africa about the seizure of commercial farms by President Mugabe in Zimbabwe set the stage for his take on the continent, “I love the African bush; I hate African cities. After my last Africa trip, I swore that I would never go back to the stinking buses, the city streets reeking of piss, the lying politicians, the schemers, the twaddlers, the crooks, the money changers taking advantage of weak currency and gullible people, the American God- botherers and evangelists demanding baptisms and screaming, “Sinners!” — and forty years of virtue-industry CEOs faffing around with other people’s money and getting no results, except Africans asking for more.
Theroux builds on what he perceives as the negative impact of outsiders on Africa with his profile of the rock star, Bono, in his essay, “The Rock Star’s Burden” with,
While there are probably more annoying things than being hectored about African development by an overpaid and semi-educated Irish rock star with a goofy name and a cowboy hat, I can’t think of one at the moment . . ..” Much of his venting on the subject is due to return visits to Malawi where he was a Peace Corps volunteer and found that it, “. . . has worse education, more plagued by illness and bad services, and poorer than it was when I lived and worked there in the early sixties, but it is not for lack of outside help or donor money. Malawi has been the beneficiary of many thousands of foreign teachers, doctors and nurses, and large amounts of financial aid, yet it has declined from a country with promise to a failed state.
He strengthens his point with,
When the Malawi minister of education stole the entire education budget of millions of dollars in 2,000, and the Zambian president stole even more a year later, and Nigeria squandered its oil wealth, what happened? Bono and other simplifiers of Africa’s problems kept calling for debt relief and more aid. I got a dusty reception lecturing at the Gates Foundation when I pointed out the successes of responsible policies in Botswana, compared to the kleptomania of its neighbors, the tens of millions that have been embezzled by politicians in Zambia and Malawi. Donors enable this behavior by turning a blind eye to bad governance and the actual reasons these countries are failing.
Spoken like a true Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and world traveler who appreciates the complexity of real development.
The last four chapters provide a rare glimpse of what makes the man and one of the most prolific travel —Returned Peace Corps Volunteer authors of modern time. “My Life as a Reader” confirms that many great authors are prolific readers. “Reading has been my refuge, my pleasure, my enlightenment, my inspiration, my word-hunger, often verging on gluttony. In idle moments without a book, I read the labels on my clothes or the ingredients panel on cereal boxes. My version of hell is an existence without a thing to read, that I would hope to correct it by writing something . . ..” He goes on to reflect, “Reading took off the long dark African nights and gave me relief and hope, for no matter how badly the day went, a book was waiting for me at home, and this has continued to be the cast.” He even divides the world between those who read and those who don’t “. . . reading cannot be compartmentalized; it is a skill and a pleasure that needs to be inspired, so that it becomes a lifelong passion.”
“I did not set out to be a writer. My desire was to be a medical doctor, but this was thwarted by ten years of travel, during which I fell into writing, served an apprenticeship, and fifty years went by, and I am still at it. To me, what writers read is as interesting as what they write . . .. For my Tao of Travel, I read about 350 books and quoted from many of them. The pages of my work are filled with references to books I’ve loved.” As an avid reader, I appreciate an author who does his research and reads many more books that I ever could.
In “Dear Old Dad: Memories of My Father,” we learn some startling facts about the author. “My father —whom I loved and who loved me — never read a word I wrote, or if he did, never mentioned that fact. It was like an embarrassing secret we shared, of a creepy proclivity I had, something that we couldn’t discuss without awkwardness . . ..” He further clarifies this disconnect with, “My father did not read novels —anyone’s novels, at least not modern ones . . . and I had not become a writer to please my parents, only myself. A writer is rarely able to do both, and I know that, far from wishing to please them, I wrote as an act of rebellion.”
Theroux had an even more estranged relationship with his mother who “was a mercurial, insecure woman— as domineering people often are — and she feared me for my defiant aloofness. I knew this, and made myself more noncommittal and cooler. It antagonized her that she didn’t know what was in my head . . ..” This relationship was further strained when Theroux “fled” with a girl to Puerto Rico and upon her return she went to a “home” near Boston where she delivered a baby at Mass General. She gave the baby up for adoption, and he found out almost forty years later that the boy had been educated at an Ivy League college and ended up a multimillionaire. Both Theroux’s parents were disappointed, but according to Theroux, “But when I had needed them, they did not help, could not help, and simply were not there, except — in my mother’s case — to blame. It was a great lesson to me, a motto for my escutcheon: I am alone in this world.”
Theroux further reflects on his father with
Memories, fragments, generalizations—what do they add up to? This recollection of mine seems insubstantial, yet that itself is a revelation. I thought I knew him well. On reflection, I see he was strange, and he seems to recede as I write, as sometimes when I asked him a question about himself, he backed away. In writing about him like this, I realize I do not know what was in his heart. He is just like those skinny old men in Burma and Thailand and Vietnam who inspired me to think of him.
And yet Theroux sometimes felt that he was his father,
My father hated gabbers, gasbaggers, and ear benders, and so do I. My father had a way of inhaling deeply through his nose when he was impatient, and I do it, too . . . I have a similar temperament. I am generally humane, relatively serene, and like to be left alone, as he did. I will sometimes agree to anything to keep the peace, because he felt (as I do) that you can’t really change the narrow stubborn mind of a person who is set in his belief, and anyway why bother?
Theroux felt that his mother was literally killing his father, and described the relationship between them as,
If there was a lesson for me, these family experiences resolved themselves in my horror of weak and vain, nagging and castrating women. As soon as I sense an echo of my mother in a woman’s voice, I recognize the snarl of a she-wolf and flee . . . but only the one thing I’ve failed to do, ultimately a cynicism and a merciless refusal to see my pain—when in my life I’ve heard those things, or heard something as subtle as a sniff, a snort, a harrumph, a certain tilt of the head. I have mentally shut myself down and vowed to end the relationship, because I do not want to become the person that my father became in his old age, reduced to dependence on an unhappy woman who not only didn’t know what she wanted, but needed, most of all, someone to blame.
In the end, Theroux’s father wanted to be left alone.
He would have been appalled if he ever got wind of instances of my wayward behavior. I had a mediocre school record. I was arrested by the police at a campus demonstration in 1962 in Amherst. I had fathered an illegitimate child. I was kicked out of the Peace Corps (“terminated early”) in 1965 for a number of transgressions, my first wife and I split up in 1990, I wrote umpteen books — and these events or topics were never mentioned at all, and perhaps in my father’s mind they never happened. Or was it because they were “faits accompli” that there was nothing to say?
In the final essay, “The Trouble with Autobiography,” Theroux provides 500 words, which “are all I will ever write of my autobiography.” At the age of 67, he asked the question, “Do I write my life or leave it to others to deal with?” He has no intentions of writing about his life, and plans to put obstacles in the way of those who try, since, “Biography lends to death a new terror.” He claims that Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is “glittering miniaturism, but largely self-serving portraiture, was posthumous . . ..” Theroux harkens back to the “mysterious B. Traven” (born Otto Feige in Germany), author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and ten other novels, who succeeded in frustrating any biographers by assuming multiple identities, changing his name three or four times, and living as a recluse in Mexico. He wrote, “The creative person should have no other biography than his books.”
Mark Walker (Guatemala 1971–73) co-founded a Guatemalan development agency and then managed child sponsorship programs for Plan International in Guatemala, Colombia and Sierra Leone. He has held senior fundraising positions for several groups like CARE International, MAP International, Make-A-Wish International, and was the CEO of Hagar. Most recently, he completed a fundraising study for the National Peace Corps Association as a VP at Carlton & Co. His memoir, Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond, was published by Peace Corps Writers in 2017. Mark’s wife and three children were born in Guatemala and now live in Scottsdale, Arizona.