Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux

It's not unreasonable that a book that took a year to live and some significant time afterward to write would also take a substantial time to read. So I didn't mind that it took me six weeks to wander through Paul Theroux's late-80s train travelogue of China, Riding the Iron Rooster.

I started this book on a trip of my own -- off to the "mothership" of my company, in darkest Eagan, Minnesota, back in mid-September -- and didn't get much read during that week. It's a longish book for me these days, with four hundred and fifty pages of dense type, and I'm still trying to figure out when and how to read more when I'm only commuting two days a week. (If I save two hours of commuting each way, and only sleep one hour later, surely that should mean I have three more hours in the day, right? Somehow, it doesn't happen that way.)

Theroux spent what seems like close to a year during 1986 and 1987 in China, and he doesn't explain how he managed that: his travel books never talk about the rest of his life, or his family, just the places he's traveling in and the people he meets there. My assumption is that this book actually records a series of shorter trips, of a few weeks or a month at a time, and that he flew in and out to pick up from where he left off sometime later. But that could be wrong: maybe he just settled into a Chinese city for a week or three at a time, working on whatever other book he had going in 1986 (knowing publishing schedules, I'd guess 1989's My Secret History, though 1987's The White Man's Burden is more thematically appropriate), and then had a few days on the train to the next city to gather material for this book. It's probably some combination of that -- I doubt he really stayed in China for 12+ months solid, but he never explains those details in his travel books.

The first chapter, unusually, is about getting to China, but, more characteristically, it's all by rail. Theroux started from London -- "where I happened to be," as he archly puts it on page one -- and joined a package railway tour through the USSR as a way to get to Mongolia and then China itself. The first long chapter is with the tour group, across Europe and Russian Asia, as he dodges questions about what he does for a living and snoops on his (pretty dull) fellow package tourists.

(Theroux, like any self-respecting travel-book writer, disdains mere tourists and thinks of what he does as travel, something higher and better and available only to the purer sort of person who doesn't have to get back to a real job after one or three weeks.)

Then he gets into China itself, which of course is gigantic. I think people, no matter where they live, have skewed views of the large countries of the world, thinking everything else smaller than it is -- the American's view of China is of a place smaller than the US and a lot like his favorite "Chinese" restaurant, and an Indian's view of America is of somewhere nowhere near as expansive and varied his his own country. China is, of course, gigantic, and full of specific places and people -- Tibetan and Han and Mongolian and Manchu and plenty of others -- meaning anything like a correct view will be a kaleidoscope. Theroux's style, writing about a specific time and place, does help to keep that reality in view.

Also, China is long-civilized and most of it has been transformed entirely by human activity over thousands of years. This trip was before more recent engineering marvels like the Three Gorges Dam or the explosive growth of the South Chinese industrial cities, but Theroux regularly comments on how odd it is to travel through a vast countryside that's almost entirely cultivated: fields march in neat tiers up hillsides next to tamed and emptied rivers, and hard-working Chinese farmers are ubiquitous.

Like other Theroux travel books I've read, Riding the Iron Rooster is organized by journeys: each chapter is about a specific trip, on a specific itinerary, at a particular time of year. He may be a bit vague about how he got there and what else he may be doing, but he's very focused on what's going on in each place as he reaches it, and what it's like to be on those crowded, rough railways for each leg. He has Chinese minders some of the time, but he mostly wears them down -- as he presents himself, he's happy to keep riding hard trains across the country, and not trying to maintain a regular life, so his aim to be free to wander about and talk to random locals is fulfilled most of the time.

Any travel book is a snapshot of a moment in time, this one more than most. The China of 1986 was rapidly modernizing, still feeling the shock of the Cultural Revolution and trying to make up for lost time. And there was that mid-80s wonder of what would happen to the "Communist" countries of the world, as varied as they were. Eventually, the Warsaw Block fell, one by one, to their own internal problems, but China, typically, kept on its own path and neither Westernized nor fell behind. (Remember the old post-Soviet joke about glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring)? That the USSR got glasnost without perestroika and fell apart, while wiser China picked perestroika without glasnost and thrived.)

Theroux is a bit grumpy, and definitely prefers the rural to the urban. So this may have been his last, best chance to see a China that was closer to his preferences -- that's a country that has been urbanizing, in fits and starts but solidly, for thousands of years. Typically, he's happiest in his last chapter, about a trip to Lhasa in Tibet -- where he got to drive much of the way, where he was as far from the big cities of China as it's possible to be within the country, where the locals are a conquered people and unhappy with that lot in their Buddhist way, where he finds a "city" the size of a medium-sized town with "medieval" plumbing and the other primitive accouterments he always perks up for.

Riding the Iron Rooster depicts a China that is not quite the same as the one of today -- but many of the people and types Theroux met then are still around in contemporary China, and the past is always the parent of the present. Any travel book is outdated by the day it's published, since those people are no longer in those places doing those things, but the best travel books, like this one, tell us things about people and places that are tied to time but not limited by it.

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