By Christine Thomas
Despite his continual world travels, Paul Theroux somehow remains notoriously incognito. He grants what he sees as intrusive media interviews only when he has a new book coming out, like “The Elephanta Suite,” three loosely connected novellas set in India, which hits bookstores today. For this prolific travel and fiction writer, talking is the antithesis of writing, a passion he meets with discipline every day, even when traveling.
“In real travel—the uncomfortable kind—[I write] every day,” Theroux said, “either first thing in the morning or early evening, for about an hour or so—note taking, or continuing a story. But when I am on vacation I don’t write much. I take short vacations in pleasant places and there’s not much to write about.”
It’s difficult to imagine Theroux, who divides his time between homes in Cape Cod and Hawai`i, at rest. He is a frequent contributor to magazines, and has published 43 books, including 2002’s “Hotel Honolulu,” a novel narrated by a mainland writer who becomes manager of a seedy Waikiki hotel.
He’s already at work on a new travel book, due out next year, retracing the steps chronicled 33 years ago his 1975 book “The Great Railway Bazaar,” and noting the changes that have occurred since he first ventured from London to Tokyo via countries such as Turkey, India, and Viet Nam, and then back on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Unlike authors such as Kaui Hart Hemmings who says she can only write about a place from a distance, Theroux writes from both near and afar.
“I write about it when I am there; I write everything in my head, everything I see. But I see it more clearly from a distance, I suppose,” he said. “I need the writing though—the discipline of reaching conclusions, even if they’re mistaken at the time.”
Theroux has been traveling in India for the past 40 years, and he says nothing has fundamentally changed about the enigmatic country. But his most recent experience there was the genesis for “The Elephanta Suite.”
“I was traveling in India and South East Asia nearly the whole time I was writing these novellas. It’s a very portable form, and good distraction on those long hot nights in (say) Amritsar (India) or Hambantota (Sri Lanka) or Pyin Oo Lwin (Myannmar) when there’s not much to do after dark. Or on long distance trains,” he said.
“The Elephanta Suite” pointedly explores the connection between India’s rampant capitalism and altruistic spiritualism, as well as the absence of keys to the country’s identity in Indian authors’ previous “vast, wordy tomes.” The book thus seems to promise, ironically, not the India of novels, but the real India. It adds another layer of irony by roaming these issues from the perspective of white Americans seeking to lose or find themselves there.
The country is revealed through characters such as Dwight Huntsinger, a loathsome, culture-shocked Boston lawyer who becomes undone by the seedy world of Mumbai’s prostitution in “The Gateway of India”; Alice, a young Brown graduate in “The Elephant God” who seeks spiritual escape in Sai Baba’s Bangalore ashram; and Beth and Audie, a wealthy middle-aged couple in “Monkey Hill” who like to think of themselves as real travelers but can’t stomach the poverty.
The Indian characters, too, reveal India anew as they seem to do anything for money, even as they know Americans are using them.
Shah, the ambitious executive who practices Jainism—a religion that proscribes killing any living thing, even fungus—is perhaps the most intriguing example, for even as he plans to eventually renounce all worldly things and become a beggar, he still does whatever he can to advance his career.
It’s this kind of juxtaposition that is dumbfounding for Americans, and fascinating to Theroux.
“A Jain will spend a career as a businessman or accountant, and then renounce the world and become a wandering ascetic,” Theroux explains. “That’s an amazing thing. I mean, try to picture Dick Cheney after a career dedicated to greed and power, putting on a loincloth and carrying a begging bowl. Won’t happen here.”
The book showcases what Theroux does best—illuminating the ironies of travel, challenging stereotypes and making you feel like you’ve really been to a place. Each of the characters is surprisingly and wryly turned inside out, and in some way punished, for the manner in which they use India. And though their arrogant cultural intolerance can be cringeworthy, in these moments Theroux’s dexterity shines.
These three stories are eminently about Americans, who often make erroneous judgments about the country.
“Maybe that’s a definition of the characters in most of my fiction: ‘people making serious errors of judgment’—always fun to read about, no?” he says.
Though there’s no end in sight for Theroux’s fertile production of nonfiction and fiction, for now the characters in his future fictional narrative won’t be settling back in Hawai‘i. Writing about India, London or Viet Nam is one thing, but writing about home is for him a far more complex endeavor.
“Probably the most difficult book to write is the one which is about the place where you live. I’m happy to sit under a palm tree and write about Siberia,” he says.
“After I wrote “Hotel Honolulu” I did not feel compelled to add anything. I am also humbled by the brilliance of books with Hawai`i settings by Ian MacMillan, Lois-Ann Yamanaka and many others.”
That doesn’t mean Theroux, who has lived on O`ahu happily for 18 years, is planning on relocating anytime soon.
“[Hawaii] is, as we all know, a place apart, for the lucky few,” he said. “I’m a grateful resident—a “wash-ashore” as we on Cape Cod call other people.”
Author Photo (c) William Furniss