In 2013, I interviewed one of the most illustrious travel writers of them all, Paul Theroux, who first turned to the genre in the 1970s when he couldn’t come up with an idea for his next novel. We chatted mostly about his newly published travelogue, The Last Train to Zona Verde, which described an attempt to overland from Cape Town to Timbuktu.
The way he depicted what he saw en route infuriated me — his exaggerations, breezy generalisations, the way specific examples came to embody sweeping truths. It was opinion — weary, jaded, misshapen — masquerading as observation. In my article, I essentially said as much. I also wondered about his decision not to continue further than Luanda — he believed that if he continued, he would keep encountering “decaying cities, hungry crowds, predatory youths and people abandoned by their governments”.
More than a year after the interview was published, Theroux emailed me, describing the piece as “a poor, vain, sniping attempt to cut me down to size but that’s often the case with young envious opportunistic writers, so I am not surprised, only sorry that I wasted my time talking to you”.
He took umbrage at my questioning as to why he stopped in Luanda, suggesting that I should follow in his tracks till I got to the city, where I should “recall what you wrote in your piece, criticizing me and my effort” before continuing up to Timbuktu — and then write a book about it. “And after the book is published I will be happy to talk to you again. But if you don’t take that trip, you really should consider another career, because criticizing me for something you won’t do yourself is proof you have no balls.”
Flattered and horrified by this missive in equal measure, I decided it was wisest not to respond. My silence infuriated him: a few days later he emailed again. “I have had no reply to my message. So I’m reminding you that since you claimed to be glad that I am writing nothing more about traveling from Luanda to Timbuktu overland and implied that you could do better yourself I’m waiting for you to take the trip, by bus, train, whatever, but of course beginning in your home in Cape Town. Given your certainty I can’t imagine what’s stopping you from setting off.”
Time and money were certainly factors in preventing me from dashing northwards — but so too was a sense that we don’t have to walk in the shoes of our writing heroes to hold them to account. Still, the idea is tempting. After all, it’s almost four weeks since my passport was last stamped, and I’m getting itchy feet again. Anyone know how to help me change a Landy’s tyre?
Read the interview with Paul Theroux.