Book Review - 'Ghost Train to the Eastern Star,' by Paul Theroux08-17-2008
Persistently and peerlessly peripatetic, Paul Theroux professes to travel light, yet he brings a lot of baggage wherever he goes.
Author of 15 insightful journals chronicling his personal peregrinations around the planet as well as 27 works of often compelling fiction, Theroux has certainly covered plenty of ground in his 67 years.
Beginning in 1975 with "The Great Railway Bazaar" which chronicled his four-month circumnavigation of Europe and Asia by train, Theroux has steadily prowled in pursuit of experience, observation and insight; in short, all the grist for a literary mind. He has also trained through China and Latin America, paddled around the Pacific, navigated the Mediterranean and bush-wacked his way the length of Africa.
In the process, Theroux created a distinct form of travel narrative and established himself as the perhaps the most productive and persnickety travel writer of his generation. For him, the slow journey is the considered journey. Eschewing luxury and ease for hard berth experiences, he prefers traveling by train, bus or even self-locomotion rather than flying. Instead of traveling the fastest, he believes that only he (or she) who travels alone can achieve the detachment to view the world with clarity.
Always a master wordsmith and superb story spinner, Theroux continually extracts shining nuggets from the most banal of moments, demystifing myth, celebrity and political perceptions as he shines his own curious light on dark corners of the world and its population.
In his latest effort, "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star" (Houghton Mifflin), Theroux re-traces old tracks.
Somewhat akin to the proverbial painter of the Golden Gate Bridge, now that Theroux has seen so much of the planet, he’s starting over. How much has changed he wondered in the thirty-three years since his first epic rail journey took him from London to Turkey through Iran and India to southeast Asia and back via Japan and The Trans-Siberian Railway?
Clearly, a great deal is different, both in the world without and the world within that restless consciousness who is Paul Theroux.
Remarking how seldom travel writers re-explore the places about which they have written, he decided to re-visit his original route as closely as geopolitical imperatives would permit, to see what and whom he could see. And Theroux resolved to travel lightly and with little luggage or electronics, living off the land and finding what and who he needs as he goes. Clearly he has abundant resources and reputation at his disposal, yet judging from the flood of ideas, images and conversations he produces, one wonders what he did with the many notebooks he must have filled along the way.
He sets out on this rough railroad itinerary, dividing his journey and observations into a succession of overnight trains linking a necklace of countries and cities encircling the great Euro-Asian landmass. From London to Istanbul he rides Eurostar and Orient Express. To skirt Iraq and Iran, he transits the former Soviet "Stans" and trains around the Indian sub-continent to Sri Lanka, then through Burma and Cambodia and Viet Nam into China, with a side trip to Laos. He rides the rails across Japan before boarding the Trans-Siberian Railroad in Vladivostok for the long trip back to London. It is a long and circuitous route, perhaps, but one jam packed with personal perspective.
Along the way he encounters a cast of characters as colorful as any novelist could create, ranging from Prince Charles, Arthur Clarke and Pico Iyer to local literati and obscure fellow travelers. And despite Theroux’s efforts to maintain the detachment of the anonymous traveler, he both touches and is touched by those he meets on this journey. In fact, contrary to his previous sentiments, he goes out of his way to materially improve the life of a rickshaw runner he befriends in Burma. In the end, it is a much mellowed observer who makes his way back to London.
Theroux fans are likely to enjoy every episode of this latest adventure.