Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Riding the Iron Rooster

By Train Through China

Paul Theroux loves trains. His first great success was The Great Railway Bazaar, which described a journey by train from London to Japan, returning via the Trans-Siberian railway. Riding the Iron Rooster takes place in the mid-1980s, more than 10 years later, and describes a year spent in China travelling by train.

The book begins with a charming epigraph: "A peasant must stand a long time on a hillside with his mouth open before a roast duck flies in." But the charm is superficial. China is an ancient, hungry, overpopulated country. In some places people are still living in caves. Theroux explains:

The Chinese had moved mountains, diverted rivers, wiped out the animals, eliminated the wilderness; they had subdued nature and had it screaming for mercy. If there were enough of you it was really very easy to dig up a whole continent and plant cabbages. They had built a wall that was the only man-made object on earth that could be seen from the moon. Whole provinces had been turned into vegetable gardens, and a hill wasn't a hill--it was a way of growing rice vertically.

Theroux, able to converse in Chinese, crisscrosses the country by rail and examines everything with a microscopic eye. He reports on the Chinese penchant for spitting, the use of cormorants for fishing, an erotic novel that has been banned for five centuries. "The Chinese laugh," he tells us, "is seldom a response to something funny." A sign in a train reads: "Guests must not perform urination in sink basin." The death penalty consists of "a bullet in the back of the neck."

The food is an adventure in itself: sheep vein, snake soup, yak slices, cow tendon, caterpillar fungus, chicken foot stew, rotten eggs wrapped in seaweed, grilled bear's paw, stewed moose nose, stir-fried camel's foot, monkey-leg mushrooms, pig's trotters in gelatin.

He is particularly interested in Mao's legacy. What he discovers is that the Great Helmsman is in a kind of disgrace. The museum in his home town is closed. The Cultural Revolution is widely admitted to have been a mistake.

The book concludes on a positive note with a visit to Tibet. "Lhasa was the one place in China I eagerly entered, and enjoyed being in, and was reluctant to leave." Part of this is due Tibet being "a place for which China had no solution."

Theroux is an impeccable writer -- 480 pages and not a word out of place -- and he always has something interesting to say: a pithy observation, a telling description, an historical aside.

It should be added, however, that the book is more than 20 years old, and its portrait of China may be seriously out-of-date. It is also worth noting another Chinese proverb (one that Theroux himself is fond of quoting):

"We can always fool a foreigner."