Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Theroux takes Ghost Train to Eastern Star

To state that Paul Theroux wrote "The Book" on travel writing, showing us how it should be done, is no mean exaggeration.

The year was 1973. Nearly penniless at 32, he bargained an advance from a publisher, essentially abandoned a young family in London, and embarked on a 28,000-mile journey of many months from Europe through Asia and back, mostly by train.

In one sense the journey was a big mistake. Theroux's extended absence and lack of responsibility led to his wife abandoning him for a lover and a new life.

But his resulting work, The Great Railway Bazaar, brought him a guaranteed life income and made his bones as a travel writer, something his critics contend he never has achieved as a fiction writer despite nearly 30 attempts. (Personally, I really enjoyed The Mosquito Coast, among others.)

In any event, Bazaar amply delineated the gulf between tourism and travel: Tourists follow the beaten paths, herded like cattle by bus and plane from gourmet meals and historic art to architecture and amusements on the usual if-this-is-Tuesday-it-must-be-Belgium schedule. Travellers, on the other hand, immerse themselves quietly, ghostlike, into a culture they already have studied; they observe, they think, they experience, and they reflect.

They take months, not days or weeks.

Theroux did all that and more in Bazaar, and readers responded by snapping up 1.5 million copies in 20 languages. It became a classic, and other fine traveller/writers followed suit with books of the same genre. Theroux had set the standard and he never worried again about being penniless.

Now comes the author at age 65, bent on retracing his steps, following the rails east for a look-see through eyes matured by three decades more of living. Thus he presents us with Ghost Train to the Eastern Star.

This one is not going to be another Bazaar. The author's critics (Theroux can be crusty and combative, especially with other writers of his stature) already have seen to that. They complain of too much posturing in Eastern Star, and of too many tired and tiring passages amid flashes of literary brilliance. (The man can write.)

So keep the foregoing in mind as prologue when you delve into Eastern Star.

Follow Theroux's rails to the end of the line before making your own judgment. Meantime, along the way you will receive an education from a canny, critical, educated observer on great chunks of the globe that most Americans know little about, save for superficial snippets and sound bites.

Equipped only with a briefcase and a small bag, Theroux leaves London ruminating on his ruined marital past as the train clatters through the city. Arriving in Paris via the English Channel tunnel, he sets the stage for what he plans for his readers while he waits to change trains and begins retracing the route of the now-defunct Orient Express.

He describes coming upon a round of French labour demonstrations against the government and is immediately drawn to the protest scene, which has brought the city to a halt. "Perhaps something to see - certainly a rowdy mob was more of a draw than anything I might look at in the Louvre."

Theroux tells you he doesn't like cities, preferring the hinterlands. People are where he sees life. You will find him among the poor and downtrodden, watching them slurp soup and gobble chunks of bread. You will find him riding the cheap-seat, grim local trains, not the neat-and-clean tourist expresses.

He also apparently has discovered that sex workers are great to interview to learn about the street scene in any given locale, from Istanbul to Vladivostok, because his meanderings often gravitate to them.

He cannot this time ride across Iran, his visa denied. But he detours through the Caucasus, crosses threatening borders between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and flies over Afghanistan to India.

He elbows his way south through the abysmally overcrowded subcontinent to Sri Lanka, one of his favourites, where among other things he is able to visit the great Sir Arthur C. Clarke (who died earlier this year).

Sir Arthur is one of a handful of internationally acclaimed authors Theroux is sure to rub elbows with in his railway re-run. And he delights in letting you know it.

His commentary through Southeast Asia is engrossing and educating, if bittersweet. Time and again Theroux is helped by kind and generous little people - the ones who do not have enough for themselves.

He gives us an uncommonly perceptive view of Japan, all the way to the northernmost sub-arctic tip of Hokkaido at Wakkanai, where you can see Siberia. It takes 459 of his 496 pages to get us this far; then Theroux gulps down all of Russia and goes home, galloping on the Trans-Siberian Express, in a mere 37 pages. Perhaps it is an accurate sign of travel fatigue, reflected in his waning enthusiasm for attending to details as he had done so well in earlier pages.

His last long paragraph is not a bad summary of life on earth, though it tends to pessimism.

The most upbeat lines are these: "Most people I'd met, in chance encounters, were strangers who helped me on my way. And we lucky ghosts can travel wherever we want."

At that point Theroux should have used the last word in his preceding paragraph: "Done."