Rara Avis: A Bad Paul Theroux Book

I’m a fan of Paul Theroux’s work. It started back in 1993 when I was preparing an English A-Level and was utterly bored by the Shakespeare we were studying. The Bard himself wasn’t to blame (for my opinion on Shakespeare, see here), as Much Ado About Nothing is always good. Rather, my classmates were. The problem is that, while I grew up in English-speaking countries, they were studying English as a second language, so their pace was a bit slower than mine.

Having read the play, I took advantage of where I usually sat in class (at the very back where I could lean my chair against the lockers) to randomly pull out a book from the lockers. The only thing available was a Penguin copy of The Mosquito Coast, which I read over the course of a couple of weeks of class while everyone else was discussing Benedick, Beatrice and Hero.

It was a wonderful book.

My next experience with Theroux happened a couple of years ago when I picked up a free copy of The Great Patagonian Express. This one was equally good and once again, I loved it. I especially enjoyed reading a travel book from the era when one could clearly and openly state how foreign cultures looked to a First World eye. It’s a refreshing change from today’s excess of sensitivity.

Unfortunately, third time was most certainly NOT a charm.

Kowloon Tong is a book whose premise had potential. It focuses on a British family in Honk Kong, tied to the colony by ownership of a factory, in the days leading up to the handover of the territory to China.

It’s a situation fraught with melancholy, the loss of a unique way of life, one which can’t be created in the modern world and doesn’t seem to have been improved upon by the new communist regime (at least judging by recent events). As the great Peter Egan once said: wherever the British planted their flag, you most often ended up with democracy, safe drinking water and a decent lifestyle.

But the book falls flat on its face. In the tradition of A Confederacy of Dunces, the characters are intentionally made to be unlikable. And like Confederacy, I enjoyed it very little.

Without giving spoilers, it’s a novel of human weakness and the duller, less interesting sordid side of humanity. Instead of going for the huge gesture, the major statements, the characters in this book are wet, uninspired and small.

Which is a pity, because the loss of the unique anachronism that was British Hong Kong deserved a great monument.

Perhaps that monument exists, but this isn’t it.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer fascinated with exotic places and interesting cultures. He celebrates human differences instead of trying to minimize them, and nowhere is this more evident than in his collection Off the Beaten Path, where science fiction, fantasy and non-Western civilizations combine in a unique and heady mix. You can check it out here.

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