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My Secret History (1996)

My Secret History (1996)
3.75 of 5 Votes: 5
0449912000 (ISBN13: 9780449912003)
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My Secret History (1996)
My Secret History (1996)

About book: * not a non-fiction travel book, but still good, December 14, 2004 *This review is from: My Secret History-O.M. (Mass Market Paperback)I assumed this would be a travel book as so many of his titles are. It is, in a way, but it's fiction. I liked the book quite a lot, particularly the first chapter, entitled Altar Boy (1956), which dealt with clashing views of religion and how some people's, however well meant, can have a debilitating affect on others'. I was struck by how much it reminded me of some Mormon fiction, particularly Levi Peterson's.What he means by his 'secret history', by the way, is his considerable appetite for sexual exploits. This activity dominates the book, unfortunately. Don't get me wrong. I have as healthy an appetite for sex as anyone, but I'm not really all that interested in hearing others brag about their own exploits.There are worse things, though. It's one thing to read about such things in a novel or a pornographic magazine which one can choose to read or not, but it's worse to have it foisted on you in public in the form of billboard ads such as the infamous Calvin Klein underwear ads of a few years ago.Anyway, back to the point. The first chapter of this book is, to my mind, a true literary masterpiece. But Theroux is a great travel writer, and the rest is worth reading for the descriptions of places in Africa and India if nothing else. Toward the end of the book, Theroux makes an interesting observation on travel which rang true for me. The story makes a moving tribute to the religion of Islam, as well.The scene takes place in a hotel room where he and his wife are staying, above a mosque in Madras (Chennai) just before the call to prayer. I include here some additional text to give the quote some context:"Below us the faithful were gathering. I watched Jenny's intense concentration and admired her reverence. She picked up her camera quickly and fingered and focused. But she did not shoot a picture -- out of respect, I felt. She said nothing, only watched, and I kept looking at her, the way she scrutinized the scene at the mosque. I thought how travel was composed of moments like this: discoveries and reverences separated by great inconvenience. These encounters, taken together, added up to one's experiences of a place -- the inconvenience had to be forgotten and displaced by the epiphany -- like this call to prayer."

Yeah, it's Paul Theroux. Right. I can hear the guitar riffs from Santana's take on "Europa" while just riffling through these pages. I read this a long time ago when I thought of myself more as an American than I do now. I remember liking it quite a bit, but now I realize that I only remember the sexual confessions. Was that all this story was? He keeps talking about Conrad, but mostly it's just the scenery. Conrad was always really writing about power, and how the exercise of power always felt odd when witnessed through his Russian eyes although he was masquerading as a Briton. For instance, in the Secret Sharer Conrad is both men, himself and the doppelgänger. Conrad, you see, was a kind of secret agent, a revolutionary working under cover in the corridors of economic and sociological ambition. Theroux, on the other hand, is entirely an American. Whereas Conrad was always nervous, Theroux more typically is calm, relaxed and quite often drunk. Nervous is more interesting, and drunk is a bit more fun and endearing. It's good knowing both types, although the nervous ones are invariably more honest in my experience. Theroux is kind of in between, at least at his best. But at this point in my life, my reaction to Theroux is more clinical than sympathetic. Still, I'd have a drink with him at some American Club in one of the corners of semi-darkness at the frontiers of the world where such clubs have sprouted.
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Despite some disturbing and outdated remarks about Africa, the book was enjoyable for its many keen observations and vivid descriptions of the countries visited. Each of the book's four parts has a distinct character, making it hard to believe that the main character was the same in all four - this made me think about whether this is an accurate depiction of how we change throughout our lives, how the ideas and thoughts of our childhood are almost unrecognizable to our older selves, and vice versa. Most of all, it made me think of my dad, who lent me the book, and who I felt probably sees something of himself in Andre Parent and/or Paul Theroux. I felt some of my childhood memories reflected in passages of the book, especially those about experiencing travel as precious moments between discomfort.
Paul Theroux produces another semi-autobiographical, fictionalised account of his travels in Africa, and marital life in London. This book struck me for one great aspect or running theme – people always have a secret life, one or the other, morally satisfying or not, and that second you, will always be your true self. He repeats and rephrases the notion at several points in his book. And it’s true.You might be an adulterer, a writer, a musician, an artist, a husband in your secret life. That is you. Forget what you do for a living. Forget your loved ones and your enemies. That second person, is your soul and truth, sharing a space within you. He liberates you, unwinds you from the everyday moral dilemmas, from the strings that keep you checked and bound. Letting go is the best way to become him.The book is erotically charged, recounting several sexual encounters with the women in his life.My secret history stands out for its greatness in detail, of the places he visited (which I liked), of the lives he has touched and the people he has observed. V S Naipaul, his close friend and peer, also makes an appearance, albeit, in another name. Theroux – through the eyes of Andrew Parent – makes meaningful remarks and insights into life as well as the emotional drive behind a writer.This was my favourite passage from the book:"In the best comedy there is something clearly wrong, but it is secret and unstated - not even implied.. Comedy is the public version of a private darkness. The funnier it is, one must reckon how much terror lies hidden.
This book, from 1989, shows that Paul Theroux, from early on, was on the cutting edge of combining fact and fiction in a novel. Andre Parent, the protagonist, shares many details from Mr. Theroux’s life: growing up in Medford, Peace Corps in Africa, meeting and being mentored by V.S. Naipaul, meeting and marrying his English wife. His descriptions of people and places invariably ring true. The two trips to India near the end of the book, one with his mistress and one with his wife, were spot on perfect.Quotes: [Opening lines]: “I was born poor in rich America, yet my secret instincts were better than money and were for me a source of power. I had advantages that no one could take away from me---a clear memory and brilliant dreams and a knack for knowing when I was happy.”“No one looks more like a displaced person than an Indian in an overcoat.”“I am show you the Taj Mahal,” Unmesh said. “I am tell you all about it. I am know everything.”
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