Figures in a Landscape: People and Places

Figures in a Landscape: People and Places

by Paul Theroux


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"A portrait of an optimist with curiosity and affection for humanity in all its forms."The New York Times Book Review
"Theroux is at the top of his game with his third collection of essays, a magisterial grouping of intimate remembrances, globe-trotting adventures, and incisive literary critiques."Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
"Theroux's observations are so keen and writerly skills so sharp that he butter-slices narratives with a razor-thin surgeon's scalpel, masterfully serving up both the world's dark underbelly and its gloriously uplifting sustenance of love, longing and wonder-lust." Forbes

Paul Theroux’s latest collection of essays applies his signature searching curiosity to a life lived as much in reading as on the road. This writerly tour-de-force features a satisfyingly varied selection of topics. Travel essays take us to Ecuador, Zimbabwe, and Hawaii, to name a few. Gems of literary criticism reveal fascinating depth in the work of Henry David Thoreau, Muriel Spark, Joseph Conrad, and Hunter Thompson. And in a series of breathtakingly personal profiles, we take a helicopter ride with Elizabeth Taylor, go diagnosing with Oliver Sacks, eavesdrop on the day-to-day life of a Manhattan dominatrix, and explore New York with Robin Williams.

An extended meditation on the craft of writing binds together this wide-ranging collection, along with Theroux’s constant quest for the authentic in a person or in a place.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781328592781
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 05/14/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 163,467
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

PAUL THEROUX is the author of many highly acclaimed books. His novels include The Lower River and The Mosquito Coast, and his renowned travel books include Ghost Train to the Eastern Star and Dark Star Safari. He lives on Cape Cod and in Hawaii.

Read an Excerpt

My Drug Tour: Searching for Ayahuasca

When I first read The Yage Letters, William Burroughs’s cackling account of his drug search in Peru and down Colombia’s Río Putumayo to find what he referred to in Junky as the grail of psychotropics (“Yage may be the final fix”)—a trip in which he was rolled, robbed, starved, diverted, and endlessly bullshitted in his quest to find a high that towered way beyond your average stoner’s dreams of doobage—I closed the book and thought: I really must repeat his trip sometime.

This was in the 1960s, when the book first appeared, to cries of execration by the usual hypocrites. The book is an encouragement to any prospective quester, and very funny, too. “In all my experience as a homosexual I have never been the victim of such idiotic pilfering,” he writes of a flirtation with a boy in Peru, then quickly adds, “Trouble is I share with the late Father Flanagan—he of Boys Town​—​the deep conviction that there is no such thing as a bad boy.”

Yage is yajé, Banisteriopsis caapi: vine of the soul, secret nectar of the Amazon, the shaman’s holy drink, the ultimate poison, a miracle cure. More generally known as ayahuasca, a word I found bewitching, it was said to make its users prescient if not telepathic. Rocket fuel is another active ingredient: in an ayahuasca trance, many users have testified, you travel to distant planets, you meet extraterrestrials and moon goddesses. “Yage is space time travel,” Burroughs said. A singular proof of this is the collection of trance-state paintings by one of ayahuasca’s greatest proponents, the shaman and vegetalista Don Pablo Amaringo. Ayahuasca Visions, Don Pablo’s book (written with Luis Eduardo Luna), is a meticulous pictorial record of his many ayahuasca sessions. But there are risks in the drug, too, not least of which are convulsive fits and ghastly spells of vomiting. Many of Don Pablo’s paintings include an image of someone engaged in picturesque puking.

Even my closest friends have seldom succeeded in exerting a malign influence on me: I am by nature pitch-averse, resistant to the selling mechanism. A persuasive sales pitch is no pitch at all, but rather something like a tremor that causes in me a distinct throb of aversion. Praise a product or a person to me, boost something or someone in my estimation, urge me to care deeply about a cause or a campaign, and my shit detector emits a high-pitched negative squeal that blorts in my head and sends me in the opposite direction.

Yet for all my circumspection, I have been seriously led astray by books. Reading about Africa made me want to go there; I spent six years in Malawi and Uganda in the 1960s, enthralled. Under the spell of Conrad I went to Singapore, not for a visit but for three years on that tyrannized and humid island of sullen overachievers ​— ​though my lengthy sojourn was relieved by trips to north Borneo, upper Burma, and Indonesia. Books led me to Africa, to India, to Patagonia, to the ends of the earth. I travel to find obstacles, to discover my limits, to ease the passage of time, to reassure myself that innocence and antiquity exist, to search for links to the past, to flee from the nastiness of urban life and the paranoia, if not outright dementia, of the technological world. The Yage Letters possessed me. Burroughs had written simply: “I decided to go down to Colombia and score for yage.”

Years passed. Then I was in the middle of a novel and stuck for an idea, and in this period of Work in Stoppage I remembered “The Aleph,” the great story of visions by Borges, in which a man finds the inch-wide stone, the Aleph, that allows him to see to the heart of himself and the world. I realized the moment had arrived for me to find the insight and telepathy of ayahuasca, which would be my Aleph.

Some friends, former amigos of the old gringo and self-exiled writer Moritz Thomsen, told me they knew of ayahuasqueros among the river people in eastern Ecuador. I was given the name of an outfit that shepherded aliens into the tributaries of the upper Amazon where traditional healers abounded. I made arrangements and soon found myself in a cheap hotel in Quito, awaiting the arrival of the other travelers on this drug tour.

“Drug tour” was my name for it. “Ethnobotanical experience” was the prettified official name for it, and some others spoke of it as a quest, a chance to visit a colorful Indian village, a clearing in the selvage tropical where, just a few decades before, American missionaries sought early martyrdoms among the blowguns and poison-tipped arrows of indignant animists resisting forcible conversion to Christianity.

The people who organized this drug junket characterized it as a high-minded field trip, eight days in the rainforest, for eco-awareness and spiritual solidarity, to learn the names and uses of beneficial plants. One of those plants was ayahuasca. There was no promise of a ritual, yet heavy hints were dropped about a “healing.” We would be living in a traditional village of indigenous Secoya people, deep in Ecuador’s Oriente region, near the Colombian border, on a narrow branch of Burroughs’s Putumayo, where the ayahuasca vine clinging to the trunks of rainforest trees grows as thick as a baby’s arm.

But I had a bad feeling from the beginning. I am not used to traveling in groups, and this was a nervous and ill-assorted bunch, eight or ten people, a larger number than I had expected. The great attraction for me​—​it was the reason I had signed up—​was that Don Pablo Amaringo would be our vegetalista. But even Don Pablo, in his stirring lecture in Quito before we set out, spoke of the conflicting vibrations he felt among the people in our group.

Don Pablo’s gentle manner, shy Amazonian smile, and wide knowledge of jungle plants made him instantly persuasive. He was golden-skinned and slight of build, and his expressions were so animated and responsive it was impossible to tell his age. An experienced taker of ayahuasca, he had as a master painter been able to capture the experience in his pictures. He is a respected shaman, though he seldom used the word. “Shaman” is a term from the Siberian Evenki people that has gained wide acceptance. In Quechua, the word for shaman is pajé, “the man who embodies all experience.”

Don Pablo was also a teacher; he ran an art school in Pucallpa, Peru. In 1953 Burroughs had found ayahuasca in Pucallapa. I trusted Don Pablo from the moment I met him. He remains one of the most gifted, insightful, and charismatic people I have met in my life. Don Pablo correctly diagnosed that I had unfinished business back home​—my wife unwell, my affairs in a muddle; he seemed to know I was stuck in writing my book. His shrewdness reminded me that a substance named telepathine had been isolated from ayahuasca.

“Your mind is partly here and partly at home,” he told me.

The others disturbed me. Except for a psychiatrist-poet and a young man who was on the trip to add a chapter to his book about his drug experiences (not long before, he had been roistering at the Burning Man festival), these people were not travelers. Even in Quito they looked out of their depth, and later, as we penetrated the Ecuadorian interior, they seemed to wilt. One woman cried easily, one man proclaimed militant Judaism, another her spirit search; a man confided to me that he was on a quest for spiritual fulfillment, another sobbed, “I need a healing.” One lovely girl was beset by a chronic case of the squitters.

They thought of themselves as searchers. They seemed to have a touching faith in the efficacy of this trip, yet they seemed abysmally ill prepared for its rigors. The sobbing woman did not bother me much; I was more concerned by the anxious screeching facetiousness of some of the others. They seemed to me innocents. They were easily spooked, yet looking to repair their lives. Most had never been in a jungle before, or slept rough.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Study for Figures in a Landscape ix

1 My Drug Tour: Searching for Ayahuasca 1

2 Thoreau in the Wilderness 14

3 Liz in Neverland 26

4 Greeneland 49

5 Hunter in the Kingdom of Fear 81

6 Conrad at Sea 88

7 Simenon's World 95

8 Dr. Sacks, the Healer 107

9 Nurse Wolf, the Hurter 138

10 Robin Williams: "Who's He When He's at Home?" 173

11 Tea with Muriel Spark 190

12 Mrs. Robinson Revisited 196

13 Talismans for Our Dreams 201

14 The Rock Star's Burden 208

15 Living with Geese 213

16 Trespassing in Africa 222

17 The Seizures in Zimbabwe 226

18 Stanley: The Ultimate African Explorer 246

19 Paul Bowles: Not a Tourist 251

20 Maugham: Up and Down in Asia 258

21 English Hours: Nothing Personal 264

22 Traveling Beyond Google 274

23 Hawaii: Islands upon Islands 281

24 Mockingbird in Monroeville 292

25 Benton's America 306

26 My Life as a Reader 316

27 The Real Me: A Memory 326

28 Life and the Magazine 336

29 Dear Old Dad: Memories of My Father 341

30 The Trouble with Autobiography 374

Acknowledgments 389

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