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Tuesday May 30, 2006

From Saint to erotica

PAUL Theroux is one of those authors whose work belies his real-life personality. 

The American, who was born in Medford, Massachusetts, has written more than 40 books. 

Paul Theroux: ‘It’s not the sexuality that interests me but the ecstatic state.’ – Picture courtesy of Penguin Malaysia
They range from controversial novels like Saint Jack (1973) – about an American brothel owner in Singapore – and ironic, slightly misanthropic travelogues like The Great Railway Bazaar (1975) to erotic fiction, like his most recent Blinding Light

The latter was nominated for Literary Review magazine’s Bad Sex Award in Fiction last year. 

So, imagine this reporter’s surprise when the first thing the famed author says at Traders Hotel in Singapore is: “Want to see a picture of my grandchild?” 

I coo politely at the photo of Albert, his first grandchild, born just on Valentine’s Day, and we begin a very pleasant, nearly hour-long conversation. 

It could be that he has simply grown out of his wilder youth. After all, this is the man who was kicked out of the Peace Corps for taking part in a failed coup in Malawi in the 1960s. 

But dressed in a grey button-down shirt and black slacks topped with round, black-framed glasses, he is almost disappointingly calm and amicable in the flesh. 

Then again, Theroux is not your typical grandfather. Having just turned 65 earlier this month, he plans to celebrate with a new tattoo – he is born in the Year of the Snake and wants a serpent-inspired design. 

That would be in addition to the small tattoo on his right hand. It is of a frigate bird, done in Hawaii where he now lives with Sheila Loo, his Chinese-American wife of 10 years. He has two sons with his previous wife Anne Castle (they divorced in 1993) – novelist Marcel, 37, and British television presenter Louis, 35. 

The author was in Singapore recently to retrace the steps of his 1972 overland trip through Europe and Asia, made famous in Railway. He plans to write up the experience in his next book, a kind of “sequel”. 

“The world has changed, I’ve changed, I just wanted to see how,” he says. 

Of Singapore, he says the city is “unrecognisable”. 

He offers this analogy: “It’s like you see someone and they’re thin, and you see them 20 years later and they weigh 400 pounds. Somewhere inside that body is the original person.” 

Singapore, he says, is like that: “It’s exploded.” 

From 1968 to 1971, he taught at the then-University of Singapore’s Department of English. 

He is completely unflappable, whether talking about the university’s decision not to renew his contract – “I was essentially fired” – or the banning of the 1979 film Saint Jack, based on his novel of the same name. 

But he is taken aback when told not all his students remember him fondly. 

Asked if there was any truth to the charges of arrogance or aloofness, Theroux asks: “If I’m hard to approach, is that my problem or their problem?” – which perhaps explains his students’ sense of intimidation. 

Professor Kirpal Singh, 57, a poet and associate professor of creative thinking at Singapore Management University, recalls that Theroux would be late for class, not return assignments on time and fail to give individual feedback, making him feel “short-changed” as a student. 

“Perhaps he should never have been a university teacher,” Kirpal says, adding that Theroux was much better as a personal coach, sharing stories during lectures or over a few drinks with a small group of students. 

“He was very dashing – what we would call a hot bod now ? My female classmates were not only in awe of him but also very attracted to him,” Singh says with a laugh. 

Indeed, one-on-one, Theroux is far from aloof. 

What do you remember about your time in Singapore? 

The first thing I remember is that they didn’t want to hire me. When they found out I was a writer, they told the head of the department that I might be a troublemaker ? Writers were dangerous people, so they didn’t want to hire me. But they did anyway, 

Given that they banned the movie Saint Jack, do you think the Government regretted letting you in, in the first place? 

There is nothing to regret. The movie was great. The book I wrote is the only record of what Singapore was like in 1969 or 1970. It’s a historical document. So why would the Government regret that? It’d be like saying they were ashamed of being written about or looked at. I don’t think that’s it. 

What was on your mind when you were writing Saint Jack? 

I was writing about the Singapore I knew, which was very complicated. It was in the beginning of a process of change. 

Joseph Conrad’s End of the Tether is partially set in Singapore, and in it, the main character takes a walk from his ship on shore. 

And in 1968, you could have taken the same walk that Conrad described in, say, 1895. But then Singapore started to change and destroy old Singapore – that’s inevitable. 

It happened in San Francisco and New York, but I saw it happening here. First there was tight control on the press, then they started to tear down buildings and put up new buildings – and they were worried about communist infiltration. 

How did you feel when the movie was banned? 

That’s life. When things are banned, it’s pathetic. Who bans things? People who are frightened. It’s fear. So what are they frightened of? Of people writing or saying something? And why are they frightened? When someone bans something, it’s very revealing. 

How do you feel about the ban being lifted in 1997 and the film being approved for commercial distribution this year? 

God bless them. I think it’s wonderful. Again, if something’s un banned, it’s revealing. People are open-minded and not worried and not frightened of it. In Iran, U2 and Madonna are banned. 

I’ll tell you a banning story. I was in Africa in the 1960s and I published three or four novels that were all banned in South Africa because they showed Africans as human beings. The white government in South Africa was not interested in showing Africans as human beings. 

When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and they got a new government, I was not only unbanned. I also got a phone call from Penguin Books saying: “We just got an order of 300,000 copies of The Mosquito Coast.” 

And I said: “That’s fantastic. What’s the story?” They said it had just been made a set book – in English schools they have a curriculum with five set books. 

Whenever I meet a South African, he’d say: “Oh, I’ve read Mosquito Coast”, like “I’ve read Huck Finn.” 

So the white government banned me. The black government not only unbanned me, they put me on the curriculum. 

Good story, don’t you think? 

Does the passage of time ever make you anxious? 

You mean dying? Well, of course. It’s why Singapore’s interesting because you can see its rampant materialism – it’s all about buying. 

In a way, buying, spending and building are a way of denying mortality. Because people live and buy, as if they’re going to live forever. 

Why did you turn to erotic fiction with Stranger at the Palazzo D’Oro and Blinding Light? 

There’s a revelation in sexuality, too, of knowing yourself. It’s not the sexuality that interests me but the ecstatic state. At the same time, I’m not an advocate necessarily of any of this. It’d be very hard for me to be a writer. 

I’ve written 40 or so books – could I have done that if I didn’t have a good night’s sleep, good diet or exercise? I don’t smoke. I hardly drink. I’m a healthy person. Obviously, ecstatic states are very few and far between in my life. 

If you want to be productive, you need to be healthy. You can’t actually burn the candle at both ends. – Asia News Network / The Straits Times Singapore 


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