Globe-trotter makes Lismore his destination

Veteran travel correspondent Paul Theroux will talk at the Immrama writing festival, says Carl Dixon

THE attendance on Saturday of author Paul Theroux will be a coup for the 11th Immrama Lismore Festival of Travel Writing. His fiction includes Blinding Light and The Mosquito Coast, and his first travel book, The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia, published in 1975, is a classic. Theroux has travelled much of the world and his outspokenness has garnered him friends and enemies. In his latest book, The Last Train to Zona Verde — My Ultimate African Safari, he revisits Africa, the continent that has the greatest grip on his affection and imagination.

“I first went to Africa 50 years ago, as a bush teacher with the Peace Corp volunteers in Malawi, and have visited and revisited Africa since then,” he says. “It was my first experience of the wider world, and, coming from near Boston, where I grew up, it was like visiting a different planet. A place where people still lived in mud huts, rode bicycles, if they had them, and walked barefoot. It was a huge thrill for me just to be there and, over the years, I have watched the country change. It is analogous to watching a tree grow — it has its ups and downs, in some periods it blossoms, in others it fails.

“Seeing Africa, as a young man, gave me an opportunity to see society in its simplest form, to understand the dynamics of a village, and of government at a basic level. It also taught me a lot about myself and my own ambitions.”

Theroux has strong views on Africa and has been scathing of Bono’s involvement, which he described as “meddlesome”. In an article written in the New York Times, in 2005, he recorded his annoyance “at being hectored about African development by a wealthy Irish rock star in a cowboy hat.” He wrote that the Ireland of the past — characterised “by famine, religious strife, infighting, unruly families, hubristic clan chiefs, malnutrition, failed crops, ancient orthodoxies, dental problems and fickle weather” — was not so different to African states like Malawi. As in Ireland, one of the main exports is people.

Africa, like Ireland, must find an internal solution and cannot be fixed by outside interference. Dumping charity money into Africa, Theroux has said, is often counterproductive. Africa, for all its poverty, consists of people, communities and governments, and the same fundamental principles as are applicable here.

“It is sometimes said that Western-style democracy won’t work here, but it could be argued that it doesn’t work perfectly anywhere,” he says. “It has made little progress on the big global problems, such as overpopulation or global environmental damage. Look at how much money is spent in US elections, at the power of lobby groups, or how the plum ambassador positions are given to wealthy supporters of whoever is in power.

“Even an idealistic leader, like Obama, is subject to the same forces, to the same corruption by money and market forces. Is Africa so different? Of course, it is also not helped by the collaboration between western governments and dictators in Africa. The style of government is not necessarily the key; Western-style democracy is probably as apt in Africa as it is anywhere else.”

The original purpose of Theroux’s latest journey was to travel from Capetown to Timbuktu, to see what changes time has wrought on a continent he describes as “improvised and slapped together” and “the violated Eden of our origins.” Now in his 70s, Theroux’s journey through Africa proved to be unsettling, and he poignantly left the trip unfinished.

“Sometimes, reviewers don’t see this, but, of course, travel can be lonely and frightening,” he says. “There is nothing as terrifying as having a young, nervous boy point a gun at you. I am not the young man I once was. I have a wife, a house, a life to lose. There are times you wish you could be back in your own room, drinking coffee; after all, does the world really need another book by me? But the romance of travel still appeals to me; when you go somewhere different, you also become someone different, you are more yourself.

“All travellers are voyeurs, but I don’t like going on vacations. Tourists have a limited amount of time and, essentially, they are looking for fun and they can’t be blamed for that. Extended travel, on the other hand, is a mode of enquiry, there is latitude to explore and interact and to investigate your own mind.

“There are still so many places I haven’t seen,” Theroux says. “I have never been to Sweden, for example, and I would like to spend more time in North Africa and New Guinea.

“Sometimes, it feels like I have hardly travelled at all. Lately, I have been visiting the southern states of America, which has been really interesting. To be a writer, for me, has been a great privilege and travel provides that contrast to the long periods spent on your own.

“Sometimes, you hear writers complain that the process is hard, but compared to many of the jobs out there, it has been a pleasure.”

For Theroux, Lismore will be a chance to visit the home of a travel writer for whom he has the greatest admiration. “For me, Dervla Murphy has been a great inspiration,” he says, “In particular, her boldness in travelling as a woman, on her own, and in her own committed and laborious way. She is genuinely interested in the people she meets and the people she helps. She is an admirable person, who takes the world seriously, and travel is the medium that has revealed her generosity of spirit.”

* Immrama runs from Jun 13-16. Further information is available at www.lismoreimmrama.com.

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