Review of Paul Theroux’s The Consul’s File….
Paul Theroux’s choice of location for his book The Consul’s File grabbed my attention from the outset. As a seasoned visitor to Malaysia and a huge fan of Anthony Burgess’ classic Malayan Trilogy, Theroux’s backdrop is right up my proverbial Jalan.
Paul Theroux is of course, best known for his travel writing, his The Great Railway Bazaar is one of my favourite books of the genre and so he is well placed to write a novel set in foreign fields.
First published in 1977 the book is made up of twenty ‘episodes’ set in Ayer Hitam, a town in the Malaysian province of Johor. Each story is seen through the eyes of the newly arrived American consul and Theroux captures the world of the colonial expat quite brilliantly. The observer is young, unmarried and new to South East Asia and the book plots his course of discovery through the charms and the not-so charming community life of a town with one foot in civility and the other in the jungle.
Dialogue is key to the success of any book which sets out to depict colonial/post-colonial life. Like Burgess before him, Theroux brilliantly captures the essence of those who left ‘civilisation’ to take up posts in the backwaters of Asia and Africa and illustrates the effect one has upon the other and vice versa. A common trait of course, is snobbish stupidity; a gin soaked, sweat stained bureaucrat and his gossiping wife destroying their livers at the bar of the expat club.
In White Christmas, the diplomat is invited to a Christmas party where the guests tuck into a large turkey sent from Australia via Singapore; ‘Mildred made a great show of seating us.. Alec stood aside and said, “I don’t care where I sit as long as it’s near the gin bottle’ but Mildred pushed and pointed: “No-it has to be boy-girl-boy-girl” Hamida said, “That’s the way it should be. In my kampong the men used to eat in one room while the women served!” “Quite right”, said Squibb. “I thought I was marrying a Malay and look what I get. Doris Archer” As the evening goes on so the stories of Christmas past at home bring a sobering note, it is a brief but telling assessment of the expat community and a sense of underlying sadness, homesick for a life that perhaps once was or now perceived to be better than it ever truly was.
The Autumn Dog is an amusing tale of a divorcee who has an affair with a nineteen year old boy and meets his mother over drinks and tales of their ex husbands, whilst The Flower of Malaya shows how a manipulative woman gets the better of the Consul and stretches his charitable nature to its limit.
It is a quite charming book, each story is unique and Theroux’s observations of all walks of society are quite compelling, it takes a well-travelled observer of the human condition to make such portrayals interesting and convincing, there is no doubting the author’s credentials in that regard and for that reason I would put this in his top three.
Categories: The Reading Room