Peace Corps Writers

The Stranger . . .

The Stranger at the Palazzo D ’Oro and other Stories
by Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963–65)
Houghton Mifflin Company
January 2004
296 pages

  Reviewed by Bill Preston (Thailand 1977–80)

Paul Theroux’s books are listed in the Bibliography of Peace Corps Writers

SIXTY IS THE CRUELEST AGE. Or so one might be led to conclude from Paul Theroux’sPrinter friendly version recent collection of stories The Stranger at the Palazzo D’Oro. In two of the four tales, the title story and “An African Story,” the main characters are sixty-year-old men; in the final story, the shrewdly named “Disheveled Nymphs,” the protagonist is sixty-one. Only the second story, “A Judas Memoir” — itself divided into four parts — seems something of an anomaly with its adolescent narrator and perspective. Despite its placement, this story is a kind of prologue: Its youthful protagonist describes the nascent stirrings of desire from which the tales told by the older men, obsessed with their own desires, seem various extrapolations.
     “The Stranger at the Palazzo D’Oro” deservedly serves double duty as the collection’s title and opener. Masterfully crafted, the tale is something of a Chinese box, opening to reveal stories within stories. The story’s shifting time frame and perspective produce startling twists and turns, keeping protagonist and reader off balance. As the story opens, Gilford Mariner, a sixty-year old artist, has returned to the eponymous hotel in Sicily to begin his tale: “This is my only story. Now that I am sixty I can tell it.” And tell it he does.
     Walking by the pool with his sketchpad, Mariner spies a young woman sunbathing. Seeing her there stirs memory: In this very place, forty years before, he had become intensely involved with an enigmatic couple, a German countess (referred to throughout as the Gräfin) and Haroun, her Iraqi companion. The time frame dissolves, flashing back to the young Mariner, age twenty-one, traveling on a shoestring, with only a small bag, a change of clothes, and an artist’s sketchpad.
     Having arrived at the hotel nearly broke, young Mariner observes the well-dressed, well-off couple having lunch by the pool and thinks: I want your life. If ever there was a tale to illustrate the old adage “Be careful what you wish for,” this is it. Using his drawings as a pretext to attract the couple’s attention, Mariner subsequently proceeds to seduce the countess, with Haroun’s encouragement. And this is just the beginning: only later does Haroun reveal a shocking secret about the countess, devastating to Mariner and reader alike. Theroux foreshadows it, but even if you see it coming — as young Mariner does not — it packs a real punch.
     Theroux introduces other twists, looping the storyline like a Möbius strip. He saves the most wicked and ironic twist for last: Flash forward to the present: The older Mariner is interrupted from writing the story we have been reading by the young sunbather from the tale’s beginning. Now it’s her turn: I want your life, she tells Mariner, bringing the story full circle. As Mariner concludes, “At sixty, I now knew, you have no secrets, nor does anyone else.”
     Theroux’s epigraph for this collection, the ironic opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, is telling:

    April is the cruellest month, breeding
    Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
    Memory and desire, stirring
    Dull roots with spring rain.

     As spring’s manifest natural renewal comes as a cruel slap in the face to the collective, living-dead inhabitants of Eliot’s wasteland, so the onset of old age brings a chilling and cruel awareness, if not wisdom, to Theroux’s cast of early 60-ish characters. If old age brings any wisdom, Theroux suggests, it comes too late to be of much use to oneself or anyone else.
     Be that as it may, Paul Theroux, in the beginning of his own sixth decade, has created in The Stranger at the Palazzo D’Oro a compelling collection of disquieting meditations on memory and desire, mixing naive confusion of youth with acquired disillusion of late middle age. Perhaps another line, from the end of Eliot’s poem, might sum up the import and impact of these stories: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”

Bill Preston taught in an alternative school for students at risk in Yonkers, New York, and trained English teachers in Thailand and Indonesia. He currently works as a writer and editor at Pearson Education in White Plains, New York. He recently published A Sense of Wonder: Reading and Writing Through Literature, a multicultural anthology and ESL reading/writing text for high school and college students.
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