Book review: The Old Patagonian Express, by Paul Theroux

Old Patagonian Express "La Trochita"...

Old Patagonian Express "La Trochita", taken in a trip from Esquel to Nahuel Pan, Chubut, Argentina. Department: Futaleufú Department. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Old Patagonian Express, published in 1979, describes Paul Theroux’s trip, mainly by train, from Boston to the southern part of South America, so he could write a book about it. He was already an experienced traveller and writer of fiction and nonfiction, and spoke Spanish quite well.

The book is not your typical travel book – neither an informative travel guide, nor a gently humourous tale of adventures and exotic situations. Theroux is a crusty character even though he was only in his mid-30s at the time of the trip. The word curmudgeon comes to mind, but he would be wickedly clever to sit with in the lounge car over drinks – as long as you didn’t become the subject of his scrutiny!

His description of a riotous soccer game in El Salvador is a masterpiece that in itself makes the book worth reading.

I understand that it is not possible to do that long trip by train these days. Just as well, since he doesn’t really make it that attractive – he did us all a favour by making the trip for us and writing so well about it!

I’ve read some reviews of the book. Theroux is not an author who is universally loved! He is described as arrogant, a snob, misanthrope, grumpy, etc. He is all of those, but an excellent and clever writer so I do not hold his ego against him. Here is a Theroux fan site.

Thanks to, here are some quotes attributed to Theroux:

  • Extensive traveling induces a feeling of encapsulation, and travel, so broadening at first, contracts the mind.
  • Fiction gives us a second chance that life denies us.
  • The Australian Book of Etiquette is a very slim volume.
  • The Japanese have perfected good manners and made them indistinguishable from rudeness.
  • There are probably more annoying things than being hectored about African development by a wealthy Irish rock star in a cowboy hat, but I can’t think of one at the moment.