The author Stefano Malatesta once said “the lie is intrinsic to travel books. As ignorance of the world gradually diminishes, the difficulty of recounting it in books increases.” While one would expect such a statement to be dismissed outright by travel writers, particularly ones as prominent as Paul Theroux, it is in fact a sentiment that characterised much of his talk at Hay Literary festival this year.
A man whose travel writing has brought readers through the bustling markets of Peshawar, to the lonely plains of Texas and the wild paradise of Costa Rica, Theroux’s unquenchable thirst for discovery and cultural curiosity has made him one of the greatest travel writers of our time. It is an urge he defines simply by the lines of a R.L. Stephenson poem “I should like to rise and go; where the golden apples grow”. “He was in Edinburgh when he was writing that” adds Theroux. “He ended up in Samoa.”
Yet despite a clear reverence for those travel writers who went before him, he shows a surprising willingness to question the very nature of his art, and the proverbial truth behind the heralded travel accounts given by writers from Scott to Steinbeck to Greene. Compelling and honest, he spoke about the surprising rarity of the solitary traveler and how most travel writers conceal their companions.
The world is somewhere else. Maybe I will find romance, maybe I will find a great meal, maybe I will meet someone fascinating
“Edward Abbey wrote a book called Desert Solitaire, and it’s the survival of the Eco saboteur; a lone wolf. But he was with his wife and children” says Theroux. “John Steinbeck wrote a book called Travels with Charley, so you presume it is just him travelling with his dog, but no, he had 45 conjugal visits with his wife and stayed in motels and hotels most nights. But he never mentions that. So the concealment of this part of the book is interesting because you know they represent themselves as solitary when really they have their companions, their family along with them. It shows you how much concealment there is and how much fabrication there is. So if they are concealing that, what else are they concealing?”
It certainly is an interesting point. Travel writing is based around individual experiences, unique encounters, the people met along the way, and the emotions that pervade the journey. Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley speaks of the lonliness of the road, of his spirited conversations with strangers in diners and the constant feeling of being “lost” in a country that he calls home. Yet, he was almost never alone on his trip, and his neglect to give the reader the whole truth certainly leads to a blurring between the lines of fact and fiction.
“I think a lot of travel writers make it up,” concedes Theroux. “Travel books are a lot of fun but are maybe not the complete truth of what happened. I did travel alone, and it is hard to travel alone. When I was alone, I got shot at; people were angry, they threatened me and there was no one there. I didn’t have any backup. Certainly the more travel literature I read, the more I realised a lot of it is invented.”
The real question lies in what we really want from travel fiction. After all, it exists in something of a literary purgatory, recounting a real experience whilst following the pattern of a novel. So is a travel book any less valuable for being lenient with the truth? Certainly, Theroux draws a sharp distinction between the two forms. Fiction, for him, is defined by “uncertainty… almost groping in the dark,” whilst travel writing is simply an individual account and “not invented characters, not inventing funny situations or anything like that but also giving it a vitality and leaving boring parts out.”
Nonetheless, Theroux concedes that travel has been the inspiration for most his fiction, and calls himself “a novelist by travel”. Noting the vivacity of his language, acute attention to detail and wonderful rhythm of his prose in books such as Mosquito Coast and The Elephanta Suite, which all bring alive an exotic landscape in a style evident also in his travel writing, it seems the two forms inevitably feed into one another.
Despite being 70, it is clear that Theroux still feels the allure and romance of travel. As the talk draws to a close, one gets the sense that the writer still feels as he did when he was 20 years old, embarking on his first trip to Africa with nothing but ideas in his head: “the world is somewhere else. Maybe I will find romance, maybe I will find a great meal, maybe I will meet someone fascinating, maybe I will fall in love, maybe I will find the place I want to live, maybe I will find the place I want to die. The world isn’t this tiny google map; it is huge and perhaps unknowable.”