Great Travel Books: The Old Patagonia Express by Paul Theroux

In my opinion there are two giants among the travel writing elite; Paul Theroux and William Least-Heat Moon.  To paraphrase Uma Thurman’s character in Pulp Fiction, there are usually only two types of people in this world; fans of Paul or fans of William. Few are fans of both for the reason that they have such different styles.  Paul it seems never stops writing and is currently credited with thirty-two works of fiction and seventeen travel themed books.  William Least-Heat Moon has written just four travel narratives.  Paul has traveled and written about most everywhere including Africa, the Mediterranean, South America, India, China, the British Isles, and the South Pacific.  William’s writings have touched Canada, but otherwise have never left the continental U.S.  Both writers talk and live books in their travels and meet a lot of interesting people along the way.  But Paul talks more books and William shares more tales.  There are some similarities between the two writers.  They both began writing up their travels in their mid to late 30s (just like me!) and they both are no longer married to their first wives (hopefully never like me).

The Old Patagnoia Express by Paul Theroux

It was hard for me to pick which one of Paul Theroux’s novels is most worthy of being featured by Hennacornoelidays.  By the way, there is no more coveted nod of approval in the publishing world than the one bestowed by us.  After moments of careful considerations, I decided to go with The Old Patagonian Express.  The idea here is simple enough; leave ones door in Boston, board a commuter train to another train headed south and repeat this until one reaches the very tip of South America.  Like most of Paul’s travels, there is no real degree of difficulty in this.  If you have time, patience, and a willingness to suffer some rough travel, you too can take the trains to the very end (in this case Tierra del Fuego).  Along the way, Theroux makes some rather odd acquaintances and even gets a chance to spend some time with famed Argentinian writer Jorge Borges just prior to his death. 

This book is really Theroux at his best.  Whereas later works by Theroux sometimes feel weighted down by his almost constant literary criticisms, this book focuses more on the landscape and the people who populate it.  He also lets the reader in a little more than he does with previous books.  In his first novel The Great Railway Bazaar, for example, Paul barely hints at why he is traveling by train through Asia and Europe.  And the reader has no clue as to the marital strife this journey caused.  The Old Patagonia Express is by no means a diary.  But he does offer more of an explanation as to what inspired him to take such an audacious journey.  In fact this idea of simply taking a road to a logical end point is what makes every map a glimpse into the possible.

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