Figures in a Landscape: People and Places by Paul Theroux
Dervla Murphy: rich array of essays captures reader with characters and details
American author Paul Theroux: contrasting characters in these pages are often used as pegs on which to hang scraps of fascinating information. Photograph: Christopher Pillitz/Getty
Figures in a Landscape: People and Places
Paul Theroux’s third volume of essays has many of the major virtues and a few of the minor blemishes common to his collected reprints. He notes in his introduction that the writing profession is rapidly changing, the old media ossifying, “the new media improvisational, largely unedited, full of whoppers, often plagiarised and poorly paid”. Then he recalls his son’s observation that old men tend to confuse the end of their lives with the end of civilisation – a tendency of course shared with old women.
In the 1960s when William Burroughs’s The Yage Letters first appeared, a youthful Paul was bewitched and thought “I really must repeat this trip.” Yet it was an elderly traveller who eventually set forth to seek “an ethnobotanical experience” in the rainforest of Ecuador’s Oriente region. The beginning of this chapter is vintage Theroux-on-the-move, funny, knowledgeable, sharply descriptive. In the jungle, one comes upon only “filtered sunlight, and here and there a large woolly wheel of a spider’s web, the spider crouched at the edge like a small dusty plum with legs”. But soon this gringo is being distressed by the region’s new reality: Halliburton and Occidental Petroleum had arrived. “The systematic oil search and the frantic drilling amounted to a conspiracy by American oil interests as they connived with the Ecuadorean government to change the face of the rainforest forever.” (Here, and elsewhere throughout the book, it would be useful to have a precise date.)
Theroux at last met Muriel Spark – a lifelong ambition of his – when both chanced to be passing through New York. Dame Muriel had recently cancelled a hip operation, having discovered that her surgeon William now wished to be called Sarah. She opined that “a man could not become a woman but only a trans-sexual. That’s another category. She’s not a woman, she’s a concept.” Theroux didn’t know quite how to take this. Otherwise their tea-time encounter was exhilerating. “Muriel is ageless in her talk . . . The clarity of her pronouncements is like her prose style, crisply sudden and surprising.”
In kindly mode
Predictably, Muriel did not appreciate Elizabeth Taylor: “much too vulgar”. But this vulgarity, deftly conveyed by Theroux, makes for entertaining reading. “Liz in Neverland”, based on several meetings with the aged actress, is a brilliant piece. Theroux, in kindly mode, captures the essential hollowness of the personal life while never mocking the notorious diva traits, at once tiresome and pathetic.
In an introduction to Somerset Maugham’s The Gentleman in the Parlour, Theroux refers to a not-unusual deception practised by some travel writers: Wilfred Thesiger, VS Naipaul, Bruce Chatwin and Graham Greene all pretended to have travelled alone. So did Maugham, who in fact dictated most of The Gentleman to his friend and lover during their very slow journey through Ceylon, Burma and Cambodia. Theroux relishes Maugham’s incomparable description of isolated, pre-tourism Angkor. Some people now feel it’s more rewarding to read these pages than to visit it as a popular World Heritage site.
In a superb set of musings on Graham Greene’s life and works – which incidentally reveals quite a bit about Theroux the novelist – we learn that Greene aroused outrage by choosing Lolita as his 1955 book of the year. (At that date even such boringly innocent narratives as How Green was My Valley were banned in Ireland.) Here Theroux recalls that “for long, writers were not accessible to the reading public. They did not give free talks at the library or sign your book . . . They were the more powerful for being somewhere else, only whispered about.” This wholesome scene began to change in the 1960s, “perhaps when publishers became corporate, middlebrow monsters”.
In a famous pamphlet Papa Doc denounced Greene’s The Comedians – to the gratification of the anti-American Englishman. For 40 years, the FBI monitored Greene’s movements and recorded his condemnations of US meddling in other peoples’ affairs.
Weakness for labels
Theroux quotes certain political geographers who have listed “about 45 failed states including Haiti, Albania and Afghanistan”. An impulse to apply labels indiscriminately is a well-known Theroux weakness; Afghanistan became a failed state only after its undeveloped prosperity had been ravaged by two superpowers going about their own military business.
To travellers like Theroux, recent exposures of the corruption too often endemic within the transnational “humanitarian” NGO sector came as no surprise. Chapter 14, “The Rock Star’s Burden”, deserves to be widely read, marked and considered. One suspects it was ignited by Bono’s contemptible romps through various African countries in the entourages of VIPs who are partly responsible for those countries’ miseries. In Zimbabwe, Theroux observed the representatives of a named Irish NGO “distributing food by giving it to the war veterans, Mugabe’s heavies, and asking them to hand it out in the rural areas”. In Zambia, Rodger Chongwe, a former minister of justice, declared: “The donors must fuck off! Write that down, use my name!”
It’s unfortunate that Theroux’s affection for and long-term familiarity with some African territories (notably Malawi, where he spent years as a Peace Corps teacher) does not save him from the absurd western habit of referring to “Africa” as though that continent were a country.
In a shortish Guardian piece on Hunter S Thompson, Theroux quotes from his friend’s Kingdom of Fear. On September 12th, 2001, this self-punishing satirist foresaw “a religious war, a sort of Christian Jihad . . . led by merciless fanatics on both sides. It will be guerrilla warfare on a global scale, with no front lines . . . We are going to punish somebody for this attack, but just who or what will be blown to smithereens it is hard to say.” On February 20th, 2005, Thompson a celebrated dope fiend, used a .44 Magnum to kill himself. Theroux remembers: “His friends adored him. Such a brooding presence could not be the life of the party, but he was always its soul.”
Of all the figures in this landscape “Dr Sacks, the Healer” (chapter eight) is the most engaging and erudite. Another of Theroux’s many remarkable friends, he has inspired a memorably substantial essay, showing us “part of the psychodrama of a New York outing, street neurology in the widest sense . . . The ritual and theatrical aspects of secuality were subjects I often pursued with Oliver Sacks.”
If any elderly readers lead comparatively sheltered lives, they may find chapter nine – “Nurse Wolf, the Hurter” – startlingly educational. Nurse Wolf is Theroux’s name for a queen of algolagnia who told her physiotherapist that, as a dominatrix, she sometimes visualised herself as “a furry creature with sharp little teeth and a long tail”. The unoriginal therapist commented, “That could be penis envy.” When Theroux complimented Nurse Wolf on her distinctive skills, such as “the ability to sew a man’s foreskin together at the tip and then sew a button to it”, she dismissed this procedure as “fairly simple”. Numerous other educational tidbits for the unsophisticated include the information that “selling soiled pantees is a sideline for many entrepreneurial Japanese schoolgirls”.
The contrasting characters thronging these pages are often used as pegs on which to hang scraps of fascinating information. Why did Thoreau publish only two books? Read on and savour a classic display of authorial defiance of editorial dictatorship. And so it goes on, ending with two semi-autobiographical chapters in which Theroux seems not quite at ease. But his countless fans will rejoice to find Figures in a Landscape unflawed by any new media defects.