The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2011), by Paul Theroux, is a lovely labor of love, a deliciously portable sort of buffet to slip in your knapsack before boarding the Orient-Express or Delhi-to-Calcutta or Mombasa-Nairobi train with which to chat up your seatmate. In Chengdu or Tamil Nadu or on top of Janiculum Hill in Rome between puppet shows, you can dip into it for tip-offs or travel pearls. The Tao is not a guidebook but the real stuff, notes and quotes from Freya Stark, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Evelyn Waugh, Richard Burton and a hundred others—plus our author, perhaps the leading living practitioner in English of the craft of travel writing—about the essence of a rover’s eye and itchy feet.
We find travel can be a compulsion or jubilation, an ordeal or an escape. Some of us set out to be alone with ourselves; others, to escape being cooped up with themselves. Some simply try to define their personalities by where they’ve been. “For my part,” said Robert Louis Stevenson, “I travel not to go anywhere, but to…get down off the feather-bed of civilization, and to find the globe granite underfoot.” In The Tao, Dickens describes a beheading. Rousseau and Samuel Johnson weigh in, along with André Gide, Paul Belloni Du Chaillu, Tobias Smollett, Ibn Battuta, Edward Lear and Ernest Shackleton. I would have added Ivan Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Notebook, Bernal Díaz’s The Conquest of New Spain and Benvenuto Cellini’s Autobiography to the splendid hubbub of masterpieces and curiosa. Theroux, though a student of extravagant yarns and human somersaults, also reminds us of quieter books loved half a century ago, like Christ Stopped at Eboli, by Carlo Levi, whose grave he visits.
The Tao of Travel is the kind of book H. L. Mencken affectionately called a “chrestomathy” and Malcolm Cowley an “omnium gatherum”: in other words, an assemblage of aphorisms, anecdotes and adages. Wilfred Thesiger in the desert, Matsuo Basho in Japan, Apsley Cherry-Garrard after penguin eggs, and both T. E. and D. H. Lawrence are here, as well as Henry James, who suffered lifelong constipation but found Venice “the repository of consolation,” and an Italian prisoner of war who in 1943, bored with confinement by the British in a camp in Nanyuki, Kenya, broke out for the sole purpose of climbing 17,000-foot Mt. Kenya, looming beyond the barbed wire. (The commandant, thinking him “sporting,” gave him only a week in solitary.)
The vulnerability of travelers, chafing perhaps at maladjustments at home, can be their saving grace. One writer friend of mine, Tobias Schneebaum, used to have himself lowered, naked, on a rope from a geologist’s helicopter into New Guinea valleys where nobody had seen a white man before to find out how he’d be received. Or peculiarity, their roguish color: Another left a child of his loins behind in an Eskimo village but later was abandoned himself by an Inuit guide because of his snoring. Another has returned from expeditions to Brazil and Rwanda married to locals. Still another, if he borrows an apartment in a foreign city, will read all the owner’s mail and personal papers as part of his “research.”
They’re a slippery crew, these transient scribblers: as V. S. Pritchett put it of one such bloke, “stamping out his anxieties with his heavy boots.” Homebodies are properly suspicious as well as envious of the characters in these tales. James S. Jameson, a British naturalist in Sir Henry Morton Stanley’s 1888 expedition across equatorial Sudan, once paid some tribesmen six handkerchiefs to stab, flense and butcher, cook and eat a ten-year-old slave girl while he sketched the entire process. Our admiration for travelers is stippled with reservations.
The Quotable Theroux
“Travel is flight and pursuit in equal parts.” —The Great Railway Bazaar (Houghton Mifflin, 1975)
“The nearest thing to writing a novel is traveling in a strange landscape.” —Sunrise With Seamonsters (Houghton Mifflin, 1985)
“Only a fool blames his bad vacation on the rain.” —To the Ends of the Earth (Random House, 1990)
“It is almost axiomatic that as soon as a place gets a reputation for being paradise it goes to hell.” —The Happy Isles of Oceania (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1992)
“You go away for a long time and return a different person—you never come all the way back.”
“In countries where all the crooked politicians wear pin-striped suits, the best people are bare-assed.” —Dark Star Safari (Houghton Mifflin, 2003)