Riding the Iron Rooster: By train through China, Paul Theroux, kindle edition from £5.03, paperback from £7.69. Paul Theroux is my all-time, favourite travel writer. In his books he describes why he likes travel writing: ‘it’s an indirect form of autobiography’, but his prose, humour and conversations more than make up for any hint of arrogance. I have followed him as he takes the train one cold, snowy morning from Boston to Argentina in The Old Patagonian Express and when he travels the Trans-Siberian railway all the way to Japan from London. He constantly alludes to different authors, poets, languages and political movements and his books are thoughtful yet entertaining, they strive to create a realistic impression of the countries Theroux is travelling through. He often describes encounters with mysterious women and irritating government minders: he talks frankly and disparagingly about many of the fellow travellers he meets, especially fellow Americans.
Riding the Iron Rooster is a tale of taking the train from London towards China. He is in China at the tail end of the 1980s, which is another reason why I recommend his books. Theroux has written, not only an interesting account of China at the time, but a window into a bygone era. He talks about the remnants of China’s militant communists, and prises open a country that is just starting to analyse itself. He meets civilians and teachers who were ‘criticized’ (tortured) by the student body and colleagues because of any suspect bourgeois activity. These people were almost always completely innocent: the Cultural Revolution damaged an entire generation of Chinese.
He meets with one man who describes how the generation of Chinese who were 10-15 at the time of the Cultural Revolution (those who were 30-35 at the time the book was written) have a blatant disregard for any form of authority: these people, often enrolled as red guards at school (those who safeguarded Maoist ideology and were the main instigators of ‘criticism’ towards teachers or lecturers), missed out on key education. During the time they grew up society was in transition and cruelty between the human race was rife, common, expected. Theroux describes how these human remnants from the Cultural Revolution can be spotted from a great distance, yet, he never displays sentimentality. He is an objective writer, allowing the reader to form their own opinions. It’s both an illuminating read and a travel writing classic. Eleanor Ross