When you’re leaving someone you love and you’ll be separated for a long, long time, you want time itself to slow down.
You want to spin out those last minutes, sitting at a table drinking tea, watching the clock for the appointed moment when you should get on the coach or go through immigration at the airport, thinner and thinner, longer and longer.
You quietly revise past conversations, revisit memories of past times and try to remember everything you want to or needed to say, you make tentative plans for future contact, wishing that conversation alone could postpone the inevitable parting.
I’m like that with some books. You start reading, and you are drawn in to such an extent that you really don’t want to leave it. You know it will be a terrible wrench and then a cavernous empty hiatus with nothing available that remotely matches up. So the reading gets slower because if you read at the usual pace you will finish it – and that is no longer the goal. the goal is just to keep drinking the words you relish and enjoy. You’re reading so slowly, you forget where you were – and it scarcely matters because you’ll revisit chapters and chunks of text anyway just to savour the writing. Which explains why I’m still only on page 351 of Paul Theroux’s “Riding the Iron Rooster.”
It feels like you’re travelling with Theroux. I went around the Islands of Oceania with him in his collapsible canoe. I was there with him looking at beaches thick with refuse, drinking herbal remedies with the locals, peering into the depths of clear blue ocean.
Now I’m waking up with him wearing pyjamas in a hard sleeper, pushing a curtain to one side revealing ice on the inside of the window pane, peering past the crystal patterns on to the foreign landscape of Mongolia or perhaps northern China; the sound of Chinese being spoken as people wake and dress, go find food.
Maybe the novelty is because I’m not much travelled. Maybe it’s the writing. More likely the combination of both and what seems like his total honesty. I feel like I trust him. I haven’t felt like this since I read A. S. Byatt’s The Virgin in the Garden. I may finish it by the end of October but I’m in no rush.
A couple of extracts to whet the appetite:
“Some Chinese in Canton asked me what I wanted to see there. I said “How about a commune?” and they almost split their sides laughing. The Chinese laugh is seldom a response to something funny – it is usually Ha- ha, we’re in deep shit or Ha-Ha I wish you hadn’t said that or Ha-ha I’ve never felt so miserable in my life – but this Cantonese boffo was real mirth. The idea of visiting a commune anywhere in Guangdone province was completely ridiculous. There were none! And didn’t I know that Deng Xiaoping had officially declared the commune experiment to have been a failure? Didn’t I know that everyone was now paddling his own canoe?”
“As we rounded the bend, the engine came into view – a big black locomotive, squawking and blowing out smoke and steam, a fat kettle on wheels.
“The air was so still on the Mongolian plain that on the straighter stretches the smoke from the engine passed my windows and left smuts on my face, and I was eighteen coaches from the smoke-stack.
“By hot yellow noon, the landscape had wrinkled mountains behind it, but they were bare and blue, and somem earer hills were only slightly mossy. There were no trees. There were ploughed fields everywhere, but nothing sprouting.
“In the villages there were mud walls around every house.You would not have to be told you were in Mongolia – this was about as Mongolian as a place could possibly be.”
Positively the last extract…. he’s on Tian Hu, (named after a rebel in The Water Margin, a Chinese classic) a 1,000 passenger ship sailing across the Bohai Gulf to Shandong province.
“The Tian Hu was full of spitters – something to do with the sea air, perhaps, and the wish to have a good hoick. I had resolved that I was going to ignore them, but it was on this ship that I realized what had been bothering me about Chinese spitting. It was, simply, that they were not very good at it.
They spat all the time. They cleared their throats so loudly they could drown conversation – they could sound like a Roto-Rooter or someone clearing a storm drain, or the last gallon of water leaving a jacuzzi. With their cheeks alone they made the suctioning: hhggaarrkh! And then they grinned and positioned their teeth, and they leaned. You expected them to propel it about five yards like a Laramie stockman spitting over a fence. But no, they never gave it any force. They seldom spat more than a few inches from where they stood. They did not spit out, they spat down; that was the essential cultural difference that it took me almost a year in China to determine. It was not one clean shot with a ping into the spittoon, but a series of dribbles that often ran down the outside of the revolting thing. They bent low when they spat, there was a certain bending of the knees and crooking of the back that was a preliminary to Chinese spitting. It was not aggressive propulsion. It was almost noiseless. They just dropped it and moved on. Well, it was a crowded country – you couldn’t just turn aside and hoick a louie without hitting someone. But after the snarkings, the mucus streaking through their passages with a smack, Chinese spitting was always something of an aimless anticlimax.”