His classic travelogue The Great Railway Bazaar opened up the distant and often dusty central Asian horizons for readers in the United States and around the world, back in the 1970s. A different world. Now 79, Paul Theroux has been around the world and then some, having penned dozens of novels, essays and travel chronicles along the way. His most recent volume of fascinating essays is called, appropriately enough, Figures in a Landscape. I spoke with Theroux by phone from Greece.
How important is it for you to change places to keep your vitality?
Changing places is essential to staying vital, at least for me. I do feel rejuvenated when I’m traveling. Because a writer really doesn’t habitually meet people in the ordinary course of events—it’s a very un-social work. Travel gives you this experience of being young and inspires you to write and if you travel slowly in the old laborious way, you make a lot of friends. It puts you in touch with the world.
Do you still travel on the fly, without reservations, or has technology killed off spontaneity for everyone, including Paul Theroux?
I still travel without reservations. The greatest place to travel in the world for no reservations is the United States, if you’re driving. There are motels and restaurants and gas stations everywhere. There are no roadblocks or bribes. I’ve recently been traveling in Mexico. I set off across the border from Texas and I had to get an importation permit. It involved a heavy bribe and a lot of paperwork. But you know, if you’re not fussy about where you stay, there’s always a place. I traveled from the top of Mexico to the bottom without any reservations. I’ve never done an Airbnb.
With this fixation many have had [at least before the current global pandemic] on things like frequent flier miles and technology, are we missing the point of travel?
People travel for different reasons. They may have just a week and need to maximize it by being a tourist or making specific plans. For me, I’m unemployed. The last real job I had was in 1971 in Singapore, I was a teacher. So I have all the time in the world for travel. But the fact that I’m fairly well-known means I have to take the trouble to go second class or third class. I have to stay in funky hotels, I want to meet people. Luxurious travel is infantilizing and it keeps you out of touch with people. It’s exclusive. The luxurious hotels always have a wall around them or a big hedge, they have guards. In travel I’m less interested in churches and museums than human architecture. I want to hear peoples’ stories.
In your book The Pillars of Hercules, you obviously include Greece...
If I were in Greece today, of course I would look at all the great ruins. But I would be much more interested in seeing the condition of the country.
Do you think mass tourism has diluted or somehow corrupted global culture?
Global tourism is a disaster. Mass tourism began in my view in 1970 with jumbo
jets and cheap travel, and it’s unstoppable. Try to find a part of the world where
there isn’t a tourist! Actually I’ve been to some towns in Mexico where there were
no tourists. They’re worth visiting. The medieval pilgrim has his counterpart today
in the tourist. I seem to be disparaging tourists but I understand why people want
to travel and see things but look at Venice... if you were there before mass tourism now you’re appalled by it.
You have seen more of the Middle East than many other American travelers have. Is there any hope in the air?
I don’t have a lot of hope. Each religion which claims to be tolerant is actually claiming ascendancy. What no American understands is the difference between the Shiites and the Sunnis, for example…If you travel a lot and over a number of years you see the world is not improving. People are just as aggressive, bellicose and territorial as they’ve ever been, maybe more so. There’s the pressure of more people, overpopulation, creates this perilous situation. I was in Syria when Hafez al-Assad was the dictator in charge. But the cities were intact. I was in Damascus and Aleppo. Aleppo was a lovely city, now it’s a ruin.
Do you have a favorite city in the world right now?
I have no interest in cities. I think urban life is nasty wherever you go. Mexico City has everything and it’s also a lot safer than it used to be. But if had to choose 20 minutes to be anywhere it would probably be on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara. I visited Michael Jackson’s ranch, Neverland Ranch. That whole hinterland up around Los Olivos is a fabulous place. You can travel all over the world and you’d find very few places that can compare.
In Figures in a Landscape you include an epigram from an ancient Hebrew prophet. It has something to do with the nature of truth…
If you tell the truth, what you say will be prophetic, and this is the problem with tourism and political travel. You really have to see things as they are. And you end up saying I told you so. It’s why traveling alone is a great thing: You see things, you can meditate on them and then move on.
I was heavily criticized by when I wrote my book on China. The China watchers were saying China was reforming and that everything’s fine and I said you know, it’s not fine! First, they’re going to eat our lunch—and secondly it’s a very oppressive place where people are being underpaid. And I wrote it before Tiananmen Square.
China will make a move on Taiwan, probably in our lifetime. They’ll defy the West and do what they did in Tibet…move in and say well, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ You can bank on that.
Figures in a Landscape: People and Places by Paul Theroux is published by HarperCollinsPublishers.
This interview was conducted before the lockdowns in Greece and elsewhere. It has been edited for relevance.