Figures in a Landscape, and Redemption Song- book reviews

Figures in a Landscape is a collection of non-fiction articles by Paul Theroux, in which he takes readers through a literary landscape includes celebrities, places, and the past. There are profiles of famous figures like Elizabeth Taylor and Robin Williams, as well as interesting non-famous people. There are shorter pieces on aspects of Theroux’s life including his love of reading and relationship with his parents. Theroux is one of my favorite writers but somehow I didn’t find this book too appealing.

The pieces vary in length with the profiles being over 30 pages while others like the personal essays are less than 10. The disparity in length and the widely varying subjects in the over 20 articles in the book give it an inconsistent effect that made it hard to fully appreciate them. But Theroux does well to probe his subjects and provide compelling portraits of their lives, whether it be a celebrity comedian actor or a dominatrix.

I found his personal essays to be interesting, especially the one about Hawaii, Theroux’s home, and about his father. Theroux had a complicated relationship with his parents as his mother scorned his writing career while his father was caring but deferential in life. What Theroux says about books giving him relief and hope while living in Africa as “no matter how badly the day went, a book was waiting” for him is the most touching statement I’ve ever read expressed about books. It’s something I will try to keep in mind with my reading.

The Caine Prize for African Writing recognizes the best African short stories every year. Redemption Song and other stories features the five shortlisted Caine Prize stories for 2018 as well as 12 stories written during a Caine’s Prize workshop. Featuring writers from Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Rwanda and 4 other African countries, the stories highlight life, conflicts and other issues all over the continent. There are funny stories, sad stories, and even sci-fi, fantasy and ghost ones.

Among the more memorable are “Fanta Blackcurrant,” a sad tale of a street girl in a Kenyan slum, “American Dream,” which was about a boy in a rough Nigerian coastal community, and “No Ordinary Soiree,” about a female Rwandan businesswoman struggling to escape her loveless marriage to a wealthy heir. In “America”, a Rwandan woman visits her Cameroonian boyfriend in the US with high hopes only to be disappointed as she realizes the pitiful truth about him.

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star- book review

The Trans-Siberian Express is one of the world’s most famous transcontinental journeys, spanning across Russia from Moscow to Siberia. But in American novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, the Trans-Siberian is merely his way back home after a gruelling journey from London to Tokyo across Asia, mostly by train. Theroux crossed Europe by train, went through Turkey and Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia, before traversing half of Japan. This bold journey was not even the first time he had done in, as it was the repeat of an earlier one he made in the 1970s, which he also wrote about in The Great Railroad Bazaar.

Going through over a dozen countries, Theroux writes at least one chapter about each of them, with India and Japan getting several chapters. Besides those two, I found the chapters on Sri Lanka and Myanmar very interesting as those countries were going through civil conflict and authoritarian rule respectively. The chapter on Singapore is surprisingly colorful as it mentions the seedy side of that super-modern island state. Theroux is scathing about Singapore’s nanny state and its famous leader Lee Kuan Yew. He finds Eastern Europe (Romania, Hungary) and Central Asia to be quite bleak and dowdy.

However, one of the most memorable chapters is the one about the Trans-Siberian Express. During the trip, Theroux stops off at a Russian town which has one of the last remaining gulags, which has been converted into an asylum. Theroux talks about how harsh the gulags were, used by a repressive regime under Josef Stalin to obtain mass slave labour by imprisoning its own citizens on often spurious charges to rebuild the economy. Writers were also victims of the gulags, being critics of the state, with Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn being a famous example. Theroux’s local guide also had a direct connection as his uncle spent 25 years in one after being arrested in 1946 for picking up a few grains of wheat from a field because he was desperately hungry. Russia is not a country that I’m too interested or care too much for, but I did feel some sadness for its people after I read this.

During his travel, Theroux meets with several famous writers including Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul, Arthur Clarke in Sri Lanka, and Haruki Murakami and Pico Iyer, who he considers a friend, in Japan. He is extremely frank, perhaps too frank, about his conversations with Iyer, during which they talked about other writers including VS Naipaul, the Trinidadian-British Nobel laureate who Theroux had a significant falling out with after having been longtime friends (about which he consequently wrote a book “Sir Vidia’s Shadow”).

Though this book was published in 2008, by no means is it out of date. The world may have changed, but some things are still almost the same. Theroux is especially critical of China, decrying its soullessness (though he also says that about Tokyo) in its wanton pursuit of wealth at the cost of its environment, historical preservation and social morals.

Having also read Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, as well as Last Train to Zona Verde, which was about his travels through Africa, I would say he is less critical and pessimistic about Asia. However, as with Dark Star Safari, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (the names of two of the trains he took during his journey) is also a very good read.

Sir Vidia’s Shadow- book review

The country of Trinidad and Tobago, where I come from, is a tiny pair of islands in the Caribbean with a population of 1.3 million. Many people have never heard of it, especially in Asia, but Trinidad is renowned for a handful of reasons. One would be its Carnival festival and steelpan instrument, another would be star athletes like Brian Lara, one of the greatest cricket batsmen, and then there is VS Naipaul, the writer who won the Nobel Literature Prize in 2001. Naipaul was born and grew up in Trinidad, but he left for England to attend Oxford and since then, has lived there. He has never been shy to criticize where he came from and there are many in Trinidad who feel he has turned his backs on them and would just say good riddance to him.

Naipaul’s critical views towards Trinidad is not unique because he has also been heavily critical, even dismissive, of Africa, India and the Islamic world, all of where he traveled to and wrote books about. In short, he is not a man who cares too much about who he offends and who is afraid to voice his true thoughts, as haughty, arrogant or contemptuous as they might sound. As a person, Naipaul is not much different, having been well-known for mistreating his own first wife and for various incidents at public functions as well as spats with fellow writers. One of these spats was famously with Paul Theroux, another famous writer, who for a long time considered himself a protege and friend of Naipaul’s. They had met in Uganda in 1967 where Theroux was teaching a local university and Naipaul was a visiting writer. Theroux was still struggling to launch his writing career while Naipaul, nine years older, was an established name. A friendship flourished that lasted through decades and continents, until suddenly Naipaul ended it.

Theroux was so affected by their falling out that he wrote a book about their long friendship. The result is Sir Vidia’s Shadow – A Friendship Across Five Continents, a compelling piece of work that lays bare their relationship and sheds more light on Naipaul, who could be perplexing and arrogant, than on the author.

The book is interesting but it did not make me feel sympathetic towards Naipaul and I came away wondering how Theroux could have been so deferential for such a long time. Theroux himself says almost the same thing, explaining how eager and pleased he was to get Naipaul’s praise and respect. He also recounts what he hears concerning Naipaul’s boorish behavior towards the public or to fellow writers. There is also the callous manner in which Naipaul treats his faithful first wife, Pat, who Theroux gets along well with, having affairs and then later courting his second wife while Pat is dying of cancer.

On the one hand, it is understandable why Theroux valued their relationship so much. Naipaul was already a published award-winning renowned writer when they met. Naipaul gives Theroux blunt advice and sparing praise, of which Theroux treasures every last bit. Theroux is wounded when the break-up occurs, and it is only then in the book he makes some intense criticisms of Naipaul, for whom up to that point he had only affection and reverence. While the book is not petty or harsh, Theroux’s recounting of their relationship seems to hint at a change in Naipaul’s personality in becoming more callous and bitter as time goes by over the years.

Naipaul may be the Nobel laureate, but I have more respect for Theroux than Naipaul, both of whose books I’ve read, though not that many. I’ve found Naipaul’s writing, especially his non-fiction to be spare and blunt in tone, though not necessarily always wrong. Theroux is also cantankerous and blunt, though less haughty and, as a white American, certainly not pro-Western and unreservably dismissive of the Third World like Naipaul.

The break-up of their friendship happened after a joint appearance at a 1998 book festival in Wales, but Theroux is not aware of it until he realizes Naipaul has not contacted him in over a year after it. Eventually, the two met again in 2011, which Theroux describes in the postscript. It ends somewhat positively and there is a sense of closure.

The Last Train to Zona Verde- book review

I recently finished Paul Theroux’s most recent novel, and I’ve just finished his second-to-last nonfiction book The Last Train to Zona Verde, in which Theroux makes a journey along the western side of Africa starting from Cape Town, the continent’s southernmost city. It’s an ambitious trip, Theroux’s last in Africa, that would have seen him travel up the continent along the western coast. But Theroux does not complete it. Dispirited, beaten down and weary, he calls it quits almost midway in Angola.

He starts off from Cape Town, first touring its vast township slums, then goes to Namibia by bus, travels around the country and attends a conference in the deep east, takes a detour to visit an elephant safari camp in Botswana, then goes into Angola, where he gets stuck in a remote area near a village for days when his minibus breaks down, which ironically is one of his better experiences.

Having been struck by the vast poverty-filled townships on the outskirts of Cape Town and Windhoek, Namibia, he sees worse in Angola and is utterly disgusted. Angola is a country that is one of the world’s biggest oil producers, but also one of the poorest. Having been ravaged by a 30-year civil war that lasted into the 1990s, the people have been neglected by a corrupt, oligarchic government. Theroux sees desperation and poverty everywhere in Angola, from the capital Luanga, where growing slums encircle the city, to smaller towns like Benguela and Lubango.

Theroux holds nothing back in his final chapters where he explains how and why he got to his breaking point, despairing over the squalor and the “broken, unspeakable” and “huge, unsustainable” cities: “No poverty on earth could match the poverty in an African shantytown.” Theroux believes that continuing on the journey would only mean going into more cities and hence, the same sight and disappointment over and over. Then there is also the danger. Timbuktu was Theroux’s intended endpoint but by then, Mali had been engulfed in civil war and the fabled city was in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists. Nigeria was also on the itinerary but Boko Haram was, and is still, ravaging a large part of the north.

There are a few bright spots such as isolated Angolan village where Theroux hears native ceremonies every night and see people living a traditional life, and a visit to a remote Bushman (Ju/’hoansi) community in Namibia. The book veers into an anthropological tone about these people, who may be the oldest living people in the world, but even then, there is disappointment when Theroux realizes everything is not as it appears.

The bluntness of Theroux’s despair is a little shocking to me, despite having read a couple of Theroux’s other books, as it can make one wonder if there is any hope for Africa.
There is, of course, though perhaps not in places Theroux visited such as Angola in particular. I have been to South Africa and visited townships in Cape Town and Johannesburg, so I know Theroux isn’t exaggerating the physical size and extent of poverty there though there is also progress (he does mention this as well). Theroux contends that any improvement in the slums results in more people coming and hence the poverty remains constant while the slums get larger.

While one could wonder whether Theroux should have bothered publishing this book if he felt so hopeless about those countries, the truth is there are very few books or articles, at least in the English language, about Namibia and Angola, and his writing is still a worthy if not pleasant contribution to literature on those countries.

The Lower River- book review

Paul Theroux is one of the biggest names in the travel writing world, but his books are not for those looking for fun and uplifting writing. His most recent novel The Lower River illustrates this perfectly.

The Lower River, published in 2012, is partially based on Theroux’s real-life experience, being set in a remote village in Malawi. After Ellis Hock, a retired American businessman, is divorced by his wife of three decades, he then decides to close his store and return to the one place he was ever truly happy – the village of Malabo in deep southern Malawi where he served four idyllic years as a Peace Corps member fresh out of college. You can sense where this is going.

Hock flies to Malawi, reaches Malabo, meets the village “head” whose grandfather knew him, and then decides to stay for a while to do good work like rebuild the village school where he taught at decades ago. Soon, he realizes that his magnanimous venture will not work out and that the village is no longer the same as it was the last time Hock was there. Things soon take a dark turn and Hock, who comes down with malaria, becomes trapped in the village. He is isolated, weak, desperate and comes close to breaking down several times. There are late-night tribal secret society rites, orphan villages full of feral kids and a mysterious compound hidden in a border zone, that amplify the sense of dread and despair.

The novel is a compelling read, with each twist pushing Hock into deeper and darker trouble. Hock’s naivete, fueled by his mid-life crisis, combines with third-world poverty and culture clashes to create a chilling outcome. No doubt, there is a trace of Heart of Darkness in this.
However, what Theroux really wants to do is present a few themes common to Africa such as the prevalence of Western development aid and its effect on locals, with the messianic complex of some whites in wanting to “save” poor Africans, also known as the white man’s burden, and conversely, the question of how much progress African communities have made.

He partially succeeds though some parts in the book like the village of wild orphans seem too outlandish (I don’t think these actually exist but Malawi really does have about a million AIDS orphans due to a high AIDS rate killing off many adults). The Lower River paints bleak pictures about Africa and the foolishness of Westerners like Hock who want to save the third world, however sincere they may feel, without really understanding the realities on the ground. Despite the cynical nature of the book, Theroux gives a sound description of Malawi, when Hock arrives and spends a few days in the city of Blantyre, and Malabo that does well enough to present a stark image of the places.

Granted I’ve only read a couple of Theroux’s books, but reading through Dark Star Safari, in which he traveled from Cape Town to Cairo, you might even think he hated traveling and didn’t give a damn about the third world, especially Africa. But his complaints seem to stem from genuine care about the places he writes about and not mere arrogance, and he is often right in a lot of his observations (I enjoyed Dark Star Safari a lot actually), as pessimistic or cynical as they seem. And with his years spent living and working in Africa (Malawi, Uganda), he has substantial experience of sub-Saharan Africa and the issue of development.

Taiwan’s election earthquake; HK Occupy showdown, Paul Theroux and Ha Jin interview links

Taiwan’s massive local elections unleashed a seismic change in the island Saturday while Hong Kong’s Occupy protests got more violent and desperate on Sunday and Monday. While these are two major events in places close to each other, the reason I’ve linked them in the same sentence is because they both have a big influence on China.

Taiwan’s elections saw the opposition DPP win the majority of municipals, including the capital Taipei, and counties, several of which were formerly strongholds of the ruling and pro-China KMT. The KMT now only holds 6 of these municipalities and counties, down from 15. For years, the KMT has depended heavily on boosting ties with China and it hasn’t worked out well. Frankly that has virtually been the KMT’s only strategy in the past few years and it’s no surprise that many Taiwanese have gotten fed up. Along with this, economic inequality, low salaries and social problems like forced relocations for property developments have continued to get worse. While my family has traditionally been pro-blue, I can’t say I was disappointed in this.

Meanwhile Hong Kong’s Occupy protesters’ showdown with the police didn’t go down too well with the public, the police and the government. By directly confronting and charging the police, the movement has certainly shifted from being non-violent and can no longer use that as a shield. Furthermore this allows Beijing to be smug and feel justified in labeling the protesters as radicals and troublemakers intent on causing chaos. The adult initiators of the Occupy movement, who actually have not had much control over the protests in the past two months, have said they will give themselves up to police this week while calling on protesters to leave the protest sites. That might be a wise choice for now as it will allow the movement to regroup and think about new tactics rather than degenerate into a more desperate and undisciplined group.

Alright, enough about politics.
Hong Kong’s SCMP interviewed two major authors – Ha Jin and Paul Theroux.

Ha Jin is a Chinese writer who’s written several novels in English and teaches creative writing at a university in the US, where he’s lived since the mid-80s. His latest book A Map of Betrayal is about a Chinese spy in the US who works for the CIA and has built a life and family there, and is unable to fully belong to either side. It seems like an interesting read so I’ll check up on it in future. The SCMP author sees a parallel with Ha’s life, including the fact he is an exile from his own country.
Because he has openly criticized the Chinese government especially for Tiananmen, he has been refused visas by China, including last year when he wanted to return to see his dying mother. It’s a terrible situation to be banned by returning home by your own government, which is ironic when patriotism is so often promoted as an ideal by said government.
Ha’s books haven’t been too controversial but haven’t shied away from covering tough issues such as the Cultural Revolution and the Civil War that ended in 1949. Ha is a strong admirer of the US, which he says is a good place for him and his family, and he openly supports the Occupy movement in Hong Kong. He also signed Charter 08, a pro-democracy manifesto calling for democracy in China in 2008 (for which Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, was jailed).

The SCMP also interviewed Paul Theroux who made the astonishing claim that he feels “lost” in Hong Kong due to how “impenetrable” it is. This seems peculiar given Theroux has traveled the world including across Africa and Asia, and has actually written a book set in Hong Kong. He is an interesting sort, though quite irascible in his writing and a bit contrarian in the interview, and surprisingly humble such as laughing off instances where people have heard about his wife or sons but not him.