Sitzbook: "The Old Patagonian Express"

Paul Theroux is surely one of the most excellent sarcastic travel writers out there. I’m glad Lucy pointed him out to me. If you’ve not read any of his books, this could be a good first one. In this, as in many of his books, he journeys to some interesting place and provides the reader with a thoroughly dry running commentary, focusing not only on the destinations, but often just as much or even more on the journey itself. The first quote I shared from this book a few weeks ago is a good example of that.

In this book Theroux travels almost exclusively by train from his home in Boston to Argentinean Patagonia. The book was written in 1979, so it’s older than me, even, yet aside from some references to the controversy around giving the Panama Canal back, the book doesn’t seem dated. That’s remarkable, considering that very likely many of the very train lines he traveled on in his trip are no longer running (the Costa Rica ones from San José to Puntarenas and Limón certainly aren’t). And the political situation has surely improved in most of the countries he visited, but that wasn’t as much of a focus anyhow; regional culture and the train system itself are front and center in most of the book.
I especially liked the section where he was traveling in Costa Rica, mainly because I live there and because even though the trains no longer run, many of the aspects of Costa Rican culture are still true and relevant today. That part maintained my interest and my attention, but it had already been caught at the very beginning of the book and held to the last page. He’s just a good writer.
Since Theroux is a good writer, there were many quotes that I wanted to share, many of them fairly long. I actually put up one of them in the comments section in my previous book review, since it was about an overly loud church service in El Salvador, and it worked well with the topic of that review. Still, I’ll put up a few of them here, but I’d definitely recommend you check out the book if you’re interested in travel and culture in Latin America.
This quote from page 8 puts the whole flag-lapel-pin debate in a new light:
“[I saw][…] American flags—the Stars and Stripes flying over gas stations and supermarkets and in numerous yards. […] But the flags puzzled me. Were these the pious boasts of patriots or a warning to foreigners or decorations for a national holiday? And why, in the littered yard to that rundown house, was a pretty little flag flapping loyally from a pole? On the evidence here, it seemed an American obsession, a kind of image worship I associated with the most primitive political minds.”

This one from when he’s in Laredo (page 40) seemed great, since what he makes fun of here is something that I can’t stand in many writers (although I probably do it myself sometimes):
“That was the first time on my trip that I spoke Spanish. After this, nearly every conversation I had was in Spanish. But in the course of this narrative I shall try to avoid affecting Spanish words and will translate all conversations into English. I have no patience with macaronic sentences that go, “’Carramba!’ said the campesino, eating his empanada at the estancia…’”

And this one from page 80 points out the great irony of many Spanish place names:

“We came to Tierra Blanca. The descriptive name did not describe the place. Spanish names are apt only as ironies or simplifications; they seldom fit. The argument is usually stated differently, to demonstrate how dull, how literal-minded and unimaginative the Spanish explorer or cartographer was. Seeing a dark river, the witness quickly assigned a name: Río Negro. It is a common name throughout Latin America; yet it never matches the color of the water. And the four Ríos Colorados I saw bore not the slightest hint of red. Piedras Negras was marshland, not black stones; I saw no stags at Venado Tuerto, no lizards at Lagartos. None of the Lagunas Verdes was green; my one La Dorada looked leaden; Progreso in Guatemala was backward; La Libertad in El Salvador, a stronghold of repression in a country where salvation seemed in short supply. La Paz was not peaceful, nor was La Democracia democratic. This was not literalness—it was whimsy. Place names called attention to beauty, freedom, piety, or strong colors; but the places themselves, so prettily named, were something else. Was it willful inaccuracy, or a lack of subtlety that made the map so glorious with fine attributes and praises? Latins found it hard to live with dull facts; the enchanting name, while not exactly making their town magical, at least took the curse off it. And there was always a chance that an evocative name might evoke something to make the plain town bearable.”

There were a few that I liked regarding Costa Rica:

“The only characteristic Costa Rica shares with her Central American neighbors is a common antipathy. You don’t hear a good word about Guatemala or El Salvador; and Nicaragua and Panama—the countries Costa Rica is wedged between—are frankly loathed.” (p. 160)

“Costa Rica has a large middle class, but they go to bed early and rise at dawn; everyone—student, laborer, businessman, estate manager, politician—keeps farmers’ hours.” (p. 193)
Both sad but true. There was also this one about Costa Rica, but the secularism that he mentions is something I’ve never really noticed here. But then again, he’s comparing it to the rest of Central America, which I’ve seen very little of. I guess I can mostly compare my own experience with what I’ve seen in the U.S. and Germany, both of which I’d argue are more secular than Costa Rica:

“We were passing a church. In El Salvador or Guatemala, the passengers would have blessed themselves, made a slow sign of the cross; and the men would have removed their hats. Here, the church was not an object of much interest—and it was an imposing church, with two Spanish towers like plump thermos jugs, and scrollwork and stained glass and a pair of belfries. It aroused no reverential gestures among the train passengers. It might as well have been a barn, though a barn that size would certainly have had the train passengers crowing with approval.
   Costa Rica is considered unique in Central America; prosperity has made it dull, but this is surely preferable to the excitements and urgencies of poverty. What is remarkable is its secularity. I was not prepared for this; I had never seen this commented upon; and I naturally expected, after my churchgoing in Guatemala and El Salvador, to see a similarly priest-ridden society, genuflections, the poor wearing rosaries as necklaces, and Never mind those huts—look at the cathedral! […] But a free election was like man’s answer to the bossy authoritarianism of a religion that demanded humility and repentance; it seemed to prove that competition was possible without violence or acrimony. The Costa Ricans’ dislike of dictators had made them intolerant of priests. Luck and ingenuity had made the country prosperous, and it was small and self-contained enough to remain so.” (p. 197)
Finally, these last two were from the Colombia section, and they both made me laugh out loud:
“I had thought I was the only foreigner on the train. I was wrong—I should have known the moment I saw his cut-off dungarees, his full beard, his earring, his maps and rucksack that he was a fellow traveler. He was French. He had a sore throat. A French traveler with a sore throat is a wonderful thing to behold, but it takes more than tonsillitis to prevent a Frenchman from boasting.” (p. 244)
“So I contented myself with the posters. They were of Bolívar, Christ, and Che Guevara; but they were hard to tell apart. They seemed like versions of the same person: the same sorrowing eyes, the same mulish good looks, and heroic posture.[…] The other posters were of blond nudes, Joseph Stalin (bearing a warning about “Yankys”), Jane Fonda, Marlon Brando, and Donald Duck. The one I bought was the best of the bunch. It showed Christ on the cross, but he had managed to pull his hand away from one nail, and still hanging crucified but with his free arm around the shoulder of a praying guerrilla fighter, Christ was saying, ‘I also was persecuted, my determined guerrilla.’” (p. 249)
That’s all I have to say about this book, but you can check out my Sitzbook list to see what I’m reading or give me suggestions. If you’d like to join in on the conversation, please feel free to leave a comment below. Thanks for reading, and have a great week!
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2 thoughts on “Sitzbook: "The Old Patagonian Express"

  1. Hey! You’re reading Norwegian Wood, too! I just finished that a little while back when I was researching for a script. I really like Murakami, and that was one of his most down to Earth. So damned solemn.

  2. Yep, reading it! It’s in Spanish and I’ve mainly been reading it on the exercise bike, so I’m a bit slow. It’s good so far, but it’s pretty different than Kafka on the Beach, the only other book of his I’ve read. But maybe that’s the down to Earth aspect you were mentioning.

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