RIDING THE IRON ROOSTER: By Train Through China by Paul Theroux
Kirkus Star


Email this review


Now firmly established as a cognoscente of train travel, with tracks already covered in The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express, and Kingdom by the Sea, Theroux climbs aboard this familiar vehicle once again and gets his stubs punched for a rail trip through China. By the time Theroux reaches the Mao Museum in Shaoshan, with a full line of complaints about sloppy latrines and bad food in tow, one has the distinct impression that the author has just about had it up to here with the adventure of train travel. However, once the business of shuttling to and fro Theroux's destinations is squared away, the same attention to detail, eye for the offbeat, and fluid style that characterized his earlier work come to the fore. Theroux's itinerary calls for a departure by rail from London and a series of hook-ups that eventually lead him, entirely by surface, to China. A currious side-effect of the plan involves Theroux as a temporary member of a tour party, and one of the unexpected pleasures is Theroux's dry observations about this happy little group slowly getting on each other's nerves. Once in China, Theroux strikes out on his own, though, and busies himself with uncovering a portrait of China after the Cultural Revolution. Despite a sense that China continues to occupy something of a technological time warp--spittoons, quill pens, and steam engines aren't merely being preserved there, they're still being manufactured--Theroux detects concrete signs in attitude, style, and mobility of a major loosening up, though a collective memory of the Cultural Revolution still hovers ominously. But the subtext here is Theroux's contention that travel writing is a form of autobiography, and it's his own character as much as China's that unfolds by the time he winds up his tour in Tibet. In the end, Theroux comes through on his claim that travel has little to do with the rituals of sightseeing; when he's told that Min Hong is unsuitable for tourists, our man heads straight for the place: engrossing, revelatory work from a seasoned pro.

Pub Date: May 27th, 1988
ISBN: 0618658971
Publisher: Putnam