Lara Messersmith-Glavin's Reviews > Riding the Iron Rooster

Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux
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Mar 03, 2008

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This book exhausted me. 450 pages of train rides, blurred landscapes, glib conversations, and Paul Theroux's relentlessly consistent authorial voice throughout, cramming in detail after detail from a year-long journey throughout China in 1987; it became a reading challenge more than a pleasure.

I wasn't about to get off the train in Heilongjiang, worn out around page 300, not because I was so riveted, but rather because I wanted to know if he would ever bring it all together, if his partial and often repetitious reflections would ever coalesce into a larger meditation - his consciousness of travel writing as autobiography does little to bring out critical reflections of his own judgments.

I suppose he did, in part, take me as a reader to a final destination that put the rest of the trip into a clearer perspective. I will not spoil the details, but I can easily say that the last chapter makes the whole endurance-read worthwhile, especially under the conditions in which I experienced it: that is, living in Chengdu, the last big city before the Tibetan frontier, in the middle of the largest Tibetan uprising since 1959, only two months before Beijing is to host the 2008 Olympic games. His fondness for Tibet and the risks he takes to be there are sentiments I hold close to my heart.

Both the greatest fascination and largest frustrations I felt with this book stemmed from the inevitable constant comparisons I made with my own China experiences. Of course, the country in which I live is not the same as the one he visited, separated as we are by not only two very different personalities and purposes, but also two decades of monumental attitudinal and political change. The China Theroux explores is one just emerging from its era of isolation, and is in a breathless and mistrustful, albeit hopeful, period of testing the air let in from Deng Xiaoping's open-door policies. People seem eager to talk to Theroux, (although it is often unclear which language they are using - his Chinese seems to be much better than mine). After 7 months in one place, I have yet to be invited into someone's home. The yuan is stronger against the dollar in 1987 than it is now; bicycles are still a dominant form of transportation in many areas; the Cultural Revolution is still a topic of regretful conversation; the Internet has yet to consume the minds of the youth, and the one-child policy has yet to produce its generation of solipsistic princelings and career-driven princesses. He spends pages admiring Chinese craftsmanship in the objects of daily life: locks, clocks, fountain pens. I wonder how it is that these things could have changed so quickly: my bicycle lock can be unhinged by a sharp gust of wind. I also wonder how much the introduction of American consumer demands for cheap crap have contributed to the downward spiral.

Perhaps the most chilling inconsistency between his China and the one I see every day is the absence of the events in Tian an'men Square in 1989. He discusses student protests in passing, and he and others make innocent predictions: "they will amount to nothing," most say. "They do not have the courage," or even, "Things are different now - the State will do little in response. It will all blow over." My edition of this book was published in 1988; I cannot help but wonder if he added a note to later editions, a comment in retrospect on the irony of these passing predictions, all laid bare and sadly naive in the glare of more recent Chinese history.

Many things are, of course, the same, and so familiar I laughed out loud: the shrieking into telephones; the utter lack of safety precautions anywhere; the staggering, ultraplanetary beauty of the Tibetan landscape; the impossible yet tenacious geometry of the rice terraces; the gross views afforded by public trench-style squat toilets; the luscious smells of steamed dumplings; the ubiquitous hawking of lougies and spitting on the floor in restaurants, classrooms, buses, bars.

Theroux is a fine writer; his attention to human detail is commendable, and, unlike most travel writers, he admits to his own presence in a clear and responsible fashion - you cannot pretend that the experiences he puts forth are your own. You are simply sitting beside him, privy to his thoughts. The book is a rambling chain of anecdotes, prone to repeating observations at times, but also giving a genuine warmth to each new interaction as characters come in and out of view, and offering a due nod to the immense cultural complexity of a place like China, unified in many ways only by government.

An unwieldy and tiring book, but full of fascinating detail and unusually privileged insight - and occasionally, funny as hell.
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Comments (showing 1-4)

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message 4: by Kimberly (new)

Kimberly LeVelle Lara- I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts about this book. I really enjoyed Theroux's travel writing- back before I did much traveling. I read some of his writings of Europe again after our trip this summer... but your insight into his perspective and how that meshes with your experience would be interesting to hear.

message 3: by The Super Moop (new)

The Super Moop I haven't read this one, but, as someone who generally trusts the cantankerous old four-eyes, I must say you've captured his style of writing very neatly in your review.

I can - I think - imagine exactly what this book is like.

I expect I'll snap it up whenever I get my hands on it, but I'm a little worried about the content having dated. We shall see.

Well done!

message 2: by Robyn (new) - added it

Robyn Cracking review. I felt very similarly when I read the book, and I too came from the perspective of somebody who had lived in China myself. I wanted to enjoy it more than I perhaps did, although I do find his works a fascinating exercise in travel writing, and I have rather a fondness for his occasional (frequ8ent) grumpy attitude, which I recognise all too well. Anyway, I loved your review and agree completely!

message 1: by Jen (new) - added it

Jen Gorgeous review!

I'm only about 60 pages in but am enjoying it for the same reason I've enjoyed others: his observations. I don't even mind his grouchiness and/or repetition. Somehow it works together, in my mind, to complete the picture of an imperfect, biased human being observing imperfect, biased human beings. Humanity in its fullness. I don't think Theroux has ever been afraid of it in himself or others.

[If I were to write a travel narrative, would I approach it the same way he does? Most likely not, but that doesn't stop my appreciation for his take and the value he adds by revealing things about people I'd otherwise not know or understand.]

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