Paul Theroux, the author made famous for his various travelogues and novels, several of which have been adapted in to feature films, is notorious for his almost cinematic style of writing- his travel books especially tend to be extroverted field notes- ripe with scent, smell and taste. My Secret History on the other hand, Theroux’s purported “novel,” is an interior journey, an investigation of the narrators shadow self, revealed in chronological vignetted chapters, in which the protagonist, Andre Parent, transforms from an inquisative young boy to a slightly jaded adult grappling with the complexities of life.
My Secret History seems biographical; the main Character Andre Parent’s life being a near mirror image to the actual life trajectory of the American- born author Paul Theroux: raised in Boston, Peace Corp volunteer in Africa, lived in Britain with children, wrote a travel memoir of a train trip across Eurasia, etc,etc. Reading it I wondered where the line between truth and fiction lies, and because the thing feels so damn real, I was plunged into the narrator’s interior life, losing touch of the difference between memoir and fabrication. This ambiguity is precisely what makes the book immensely readable. Parent’s development from the ponderous altar-boy leaving Mass for target practice, to the twenty-something lifeguard in the prime of his angst and sexual prowess , later sleeping with scores of bald-headed African teenagers as a volunteer, all seemed messy and real. Insulated into the narrators confused conscience, snugly wrapped into the beats and pulses of his private thoughts and actions, I was convincingly inside the story. When Parent returns home to London after four months abroad to find of his wife’s adultery, I too feel as if I was stranded in his “personal Siberia.”
As the book goes on Parent is acutely aware of how the years slide, the passage of time being a major theme in the book, and towards the end he surmises that no one can be a writer until he or she comes fully in contact with the experience of time slipping away, and longs to preserve their moments and history, even the controversial parts, by writing them down. Throughout the book the narrator is often making notes on the seemingly inconsequential things writers pay attention to – the man on the back of the train, the sound of the sparrows, the way borscht tastes, etc- yet he mentions several times that he never needs to write about the secrets that follow him, for in an essence, those are the real truth of his life, and to him are unforgettable.
Reading this book I often wondered “who isn’t intrigued by the hidden sub-text of a famous writer’s life?” I personally have often found great writer’s lives just as interesting, if not more so, than their made-up characters. And although Theroux insists that it is fiction, the book still manages to feel like a gossip columnists gold-mine. The reader getting a behind the scenes tour, an examination of hidden secrets and transgressions, a tour of the things one conveniently obscures: imagine a Jungian psycho-analytic session administered by the ghost of Christmas past.
Theroux’s book is a secret history in that it revels in the various incidents that people carefully edit out of their lives. The cold sores of character, personality flaws that remain hidden but are always with us. And in these imperfections we find the amorphous self and the puzzle of identity. As Theroux quotes on the opening page ” I am not I: thou art not he or she: they are not they.” Or better yet the passage from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in which the drunk spills his guts with no fear of judgment and proclaims with a yell- “all that is secret will be revealed.”