Paul Theroux is one of the most prolific contemporary writers, turning out almost a book a year since 1967. Equally known for such masterful novels as Saint Jack (1973), The Black House (1974), and The Mosquito Coast (1982) and such travel books as The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia (1975), The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas (1979), and The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey Around Great Britain (1983), whose popular success helped resurrect the genre, Theroux has also written literary criticism, children’s books, and short fiction. All these works reflect the concerns of an American who has lived abroad, in Malawi, Uganda, Singapore, and England, and traveled widely for much of his adult life.
Confusion, embarrassment, and sometimes violence grow out of the cultural conflicts depicted in most of the sixty-eight tales in The Collected Stories. These stories show Americans and Britons stumbling around in Africa, Asia, and continental Europe, and show Americans equally at a loss in Great Britain. Four stories are collected here for the first time with the others appearing previously in Sinning with Annie and Other Stories(1972), The Consul’s File (1977), World’s End (1980), and The London Embassy (1982). Like his novels, Theroux’s stories reflect the influence of others, such as Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Evelyn Waugh, Joyce Cary, and Graham Greene, who have written perceptively about exile and cultural miscommunication. The stories vary widely in quality with too many building up to the kind of trick endings associated with the popular magazine fiction of earlier eras (such as a threat of leprosy for an unfaithful husband in “Triad”). These stories, combined with their postcolonial preoccupations, reflect the influence of English writer W. Somerset Maugham (mentioned in a few stories). Such tales also lack the bitter, melancholy edge of Theroux’s best fiction.
The twenty stories from The Consul’s File and the nineteen from The London Embassy follow the experiences and observations of an American diplomat, first in Ayer Hitam, Malaysia, and then in London. This protagonist is nameless until the end of the final story in the collection, when he is revealed to be Spencer Monroe Savage. Since the Savage stories have unifying settings and reappearing characters and grow out of each other, the Ayer Hitam and London groups are almost novels. The former depict Savage’s affection for Malaysia and its inhabitants and the contrasting arrogance, pettiness, racism, and general misconceptions of the Americans and British living in or visiting the country. The London stories follow the Ayer Hitam tales thematically, since many of the same prejudices exist in the United Kingdom, a somewhat ironic occurrence since it increasingly resembles the Third World itself. In London, Savage begins to assert his personality more than in the Malaysian stories, finding love and a sense of identity by the end.
In “White Christmas,” representatives of several cultures attempt to come together to celebrate a holiday, only for their differences to intrude. Savage discovers that Ayer Hitam is made up not only of native Malaysians but also of “a small group with no local affiliations—Methodist Chinese, Catholic Indian, undeclared half-caste—the Empire’s orphans.” Not fitting in with the natives, these poor souls try to ape the Americans and Europeans, only to appear ridiculous in their eyes. The title character in “Reggie Woo” adopts English styles and mannerisms, only to become a typical Chinese peasant. Exactly what makes him change is not made clear. In his best stories, Theroux understands when to leave things unsaid.
Miss Harbottle, a middle-aged English travel writer, turns the entire community against her in “Pretend I’m Not Here” by refusing to recognize cultural differences by such acts as photographing a group of men swimming in the nude. In “The Flower of Malaya,” an American teacher accuses her Malaysian boyfriend of rape only for the perpetrator to be revealed as an incubus. Theroux often brings elements of folktales into these stories, creating in this case a parable of the dangers of “going native.” The most extreme example occurs in “The Butterfly of the Laruts,” in which a distinguished anthropologist becomes the ninth wife of an aboriginal chief before being discarded by him. While the British exiles are amused by such events, in “The Tennis Court” they harbor actual hatred for Shimura, a Japanese visitor:
He was aloof, one of the worst social crimes in Malaysia; he was identified as a parasite, and worst of all he seemed to hold everyone in contempt. Offenses were invented: he bullied the ballboys, he parked his car the wrong way, he made noises when he ate.
For many of Theroux’s characters, understanding the rules of a given society and playing by them is essential. Shimura is punished for violating these principles, but since individuality is an asset in Theroux’s world, he is allowed to obtain revenge.
In one of the best...
(The entire section is 2106 words.)