Sunday, July 20, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #201: The Imperial Way by Paul Theroux with photos by Steve McCurry

It's a surprising and disconcerting thing to discover that a book is substantially shorter than you expect, like climbing stairs in the dark than end a few treads before you're ready. You hit the end and say, "what, already?"

The Imperial Way ended like that for me: it's a minor travel book by Paul Theroux (slightly more minor than I expected, even) with extensive photographs from Steve McCurry. The book itself is coffee-table sized and under 150 pages; originally published in 1984 and not, I think, reprinted since. Imperial Way chronicles one journey across "the sub-Continent:" from Peshawar in Pakistan, across the top of India, and ending in Bangladesh at Chittagong. It's a route covered in part of Theroux's first major travel book, The Great Railway Bazaar, a decade before.

I didn't expect a long book, but I thought it would be the equivalent of a couple of chapters from one of Theroux's longer books, with McCurry's photos interspersed. But I'd forgotten how radically desktop composition changed the layout of coffee-table books, and how this book predated that. So Imperial Way instead starts with all of the Theroux upfront -- his entire text, running from page 7 to 30, on what seems to be the same weight paper stock but was probably printed somewhat separately for obscure ways-we-printed-then reasons -- and then dives into the McCurry pictures, with captions that I suspect were written by someone other than Theroux.

This is not one of Theroux's more discursive books: his text is basically a long magazine article, and keeps closely to the actual journey by train, without his usual stops and side excursions and overgrown grumping. He paints a clear picture of what it's like to travel by train across India and nearby points -- or what it was like in the '70s and '80s, in the unlikely event that it's changed much -- but doesn't spend time or pages doing anything else substantial. So Imperial Way is thin, even given its scope, compared to Theroux's other works.

McCurry's pictures, though, go a long way to make up for that, showing the faces and places and landscape of this time and place. (Though, even there, roughly half of McCurry's photos are copyright to his then day-job at National Geographic, which I suspect means that they were not taken as part of the Theroux expedition. Does that matter? Probably not.)

If you want to know what Theroux's full-length travel books are like, I've covered his last two -- The Last Train to Zona Verde and Ghost Train to the Evening Star -- here, along with a more diffuse view of The Pillars of Hercules in 2011. This particular book is probably best left to Theroux fans, railway fans, collectors of objects related to India (what would that be called? the word "Indiana" is already taken), and maybe fans of McCurry.

(He might have them, after all. I hope he does. I hope everyone has at least one true fan, somewhere in the world.)

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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