NABOKV-L post 0010793, Tue, 14 Dec 2004 12:16:47 -0800

ADA in Odd places: Train history

Tools of empire or means of national salvation?
The railway in the imagination of western empire builders
and their enemies in Asia

Robert Lee
University of Western Sydney, Macarthur

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In the late 1960s an aging scion of the European haute bourgeoisie recalled a fantasy from his privileged childhood at the dawn of the twentieth century. It was a fantasy in which the boy's dreams of global dominion, his conviction of European cultural supremacy, and his fascination with the technology of the rail formed an intoxicating, even seductive cocktail:

As a boy of fifteen (Eric Veen's age of florescence) he had studied with a poet's passion the time-table of three great.... transcontinental trains that one day he would take - not alone (now alone). From Manhattan, via Mephisto, El Paso, Meksikansk and the Panama Chunnel, the dark-red New World Express reached Brazilia and Witch (or Viedma, founded by a Russian admiral). There it split into two parts, the eastern one continuing to Grant's Horn, and the western returning north through Valparaiso and Bogota. On alternate days the fabulous journey began in Yukonsk, a two-way section going to the Atlantic seaboard, while another, via California and Central America, roared into Uruguay. The dark blue African Express began in London and reached the Cape by three different routes, through Nigero, Rodosia or Ephiopia. Finally, the brown Orient Express joined London to Ceylon and Sydney, via Turkey and several Chunnels.
Those three admirable trains included at least two carriages in which a fastidious traveler could rent a bedroom with bath and water closet, and a drawing room with a piano or a harp. The length of the journey varied according to Van's predormient mood when at Eric's age he imagined the landscapes unfolding all along his comfortable, too comfortable, fauteuil. Through rain forests and mountain canyons and other fascinating places (oh, name them! Can't - falling asleep), the room moved as slowly as fifteen miles per hour but across desertorum or agricultural drearies it attained seventy, ninety-seven night-nine, one hund, red dog - [1]
The continental quality of this vision is perhaps the result of the fact that it comes from the mind of a Russian, Vladimir Nabokov. The author's imagination also gives the vision an extraordinary intensity, but the idea of dominating, enjoying and transforming the world with rails of steel and the power of steam was widespread, even commonplace in the half century or so before 1914. Moreover, although this distinctively Western idea initially was rejected by most peoples who were colonised, it soon came to be embraced by Asian modernisers as well.