The Happy Isles of Oceania


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Of all the traits in a traveler, grumpiness is probably the least helpful and the most entertaining. That’s what Paul Theroux is: the ultimate grumpy traveller. He growls his way across continents, provoking people into religious and political arguments, tearing tourists to pieces (not literally), and all around being grouchy.

I wouldn’t like to meet him, because I’m afraid he wouldn’t like me, and I know what he does to people he doesn’t like: stick them in books. But he’s a wonderful travel writer.

He’s also got that old-school, man alone toughness evident all through this book. He calmly and factually relates being stung by enourmous jellyfish, which somehow got tangled in his kayak oar as he wandered the Pacific. He talks about the villages he stops in, where he gets to know and like the people, and the villages he gets through as quickly as possible, filled with irritation at modernity.

He even has a go at being a beachcomber living on a deserted island, one of those things that everyone wonders about from time to time.

One final trait that comes out loud and proud in this particular book: he’s an old-school lion of a liberal. Integration is good, religious intolerance is grotesque–as is the missionary impulse–and modernity gets us further away from community.


5 thoughts on “The Happy Isles of Oceania

  1. I actually have met Paul Theroux at a reading he did in Boston some time back, and he struck me as one of the most authentic and sincere people I have ever encountered. I told him then that I wish I could just go and do what he did, travel and write. He looked at me earnestly in the eye and practically pleaded with me for my own good: “Just go. Go. You need to go.” I had a newborn at the time and didn’t see how I could, though I didn’t tell him that. But I have a feeling he would have said to find a way. I regret not taking his advice. He was right. But the good news is, I think if he were talking with me again, he would tell me the same thing right now. Thank you for the nice homage to one of my favorite writers and a very nice human being.

    • That’s a really wonderful story; he really understood you at an automatic, wonderful level. You know, that’s wonderful: he must be kinder in real life than in his books.
      Go on, go travel. There’s always more time.
      Thanks for reading!

      • Thanks for the push in the right direction. I will go v. soon!

        Yeah, he is nicer than in his books. It’s his persona, the traveling curmudgeon. I remember, he commented on that too, how people tend to perceive him, and I think he’s happy to fill the part. Maybe I’ll be as “ill-tempered” too with as much experience under my belt.

        See you soon!

  2. This is the only one of Theroux’s travel books that I have read and it really stayed with me. He gives a no holds barred account of what it is like to really live on these remote islands. I would really recommend it too, but like you, there’s no way that I would go on a journey with him. For a start, I wouldn’t be able to kayak from island to island, like he does.

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