Getting Away From It All

The Old Patagonian Express

by Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin, 404 pp., $11.95

Arabia: A Journey Through the Labyrinth

by Jonathan Raban
Simon & Schuster, 344 pp., $11.95

Most people who write about travel know the temptation to pass off, as a description of the place they are visiting, an account of another place it reminds them of—either home or another foreign spot, rarely more than superficially similar. In The Old Patagonian Express Paul Theroux describes passing through an Indian village in Peru with a group of American tourists. Each of them sees something different in the ancient stonework—Wyoming, Maine, Indiana, Ecuador, Africa, and Florence; but not one seems to look carefully at the Inca town. Driving in the sand dunes along the Persian Gulf, Jonathan Raban confesses in Arabia: A Journey Through the Labyrinth, he half-imagines that the rusty tin cans blowing across the desert are rabbits scurrying across an English country lane.

But when Raban compares Abu Dhabi to New York, it is because in large part he has come to Arabia to observe the effects of the Western ideas and industrial technology that have been transforming the region since oil was discovered there. He is less interested in immersing himself in an exotic culture—in Bedouin customs or Islamic tradition—than in understanding the sheikhs and stateless Palestinians that he is likely to meet in London. In much the same way, Edward Hoagland explains in African Calliope that he hopes his stay in a Sudanese tribal village will help him make sense of racial tensions in America. Travel writers these days seem drawn less to centers of ancient civilization than to the underdeveloped world, where social problems, not paintings or temples, demand their attention. And yet they are not bound by the responsibilities—to be thorough or precise—of more conventional journalists. Transient and largely uninformed, a travel writer in the Third World still relies on his intuitive feelings for the place.

Paul Theroux confesses that it is the trip itself that interests him, not his destination. Indeed, from the snowy morning that he leaves home in Boston, determined to go by connecting trains to Esquel, Patagonia—a town chosen arbitrarily from a map—Theroux is at least as interested in the idea of the trip as in the hours spent in the train, the towns he passes, the people he meets. He tells us as he leaves Boston that “the going is often as fascinating as the arrival”; and when he finally arrives in Esquel, he is pleased that there is nothing there—“the perfect place,” metaphorically, to end his book. The trip itself is something suffered, much as one holds to the terms of a bet or a contrat d’honneur.

Somewhere in southern Mexico, in a hot and dusty train, he wonders, “Was there any point in this trip aside from the fact that I had been too restless to stay at my desk and endure another winter?…I was no explorer: this was supposed to be enjoyment, not a test of stamina or patience.” Like so many heroes in modern fiction, he enjoys his own ennui: often finding that …

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