Unsentimental Journeys: Wrestling With Paul Theroux

Travel Books: Bronwen Dickey considers "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: 28,000 Miles in Search of the Great Railway Bazaar"

08.13.08 | 11:53 AM ET

The German scientist and satirist Georg Lichtenberg once famously remarked, “A book is a mirror: If an ass peers into it, you can’t expect an apostle to look out.” So it is with travel: what you make of the places you’ve been says as much about you as it does about the places themselves. By that estimation, before I read his latest book, I didn’t care for Paul Theroux. Though I admired his unapologetic honesty and remarkable eye for detail, I often asked the same question about him that a friend of mine asked about his longtime mentor, V.S. Naipaul: “He doesn’t wish anyone well, does he?” There was a stinginess of spirit to his writing that made me bristle. Reading Theroux was like looking at an exquisitely carved piece of furniture: I marveled at its craftsmanship, but it wasn’t exactly comfortable.

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, in which Theroux retraces his “Great Railway Bazaar” travels some 30 years later, is, by contrast, a book I wanted to read again as soon as I’d finished it. It is as observant and finely drawn as the rest of his work, but it also manages to be honest without being caustic, incisive and funny without being snide. The author studies himself—both his past and present selves—as closely as he studies the people he encounters, for whom he has more compassion, and even admiration, than I have ever seen from him. In short, “Ghost Train” is the kind of travel book I’ve wanted to read for a long time.

If much of Theroux’s writing isn’t, as I say, “comfortable,” then let’s face it: neither is long-distance travel. It’s a series of delays, obstacles, bureaucracy, frustration, dangers, skull-crushing boredom and lots of stomach trouble if you’re lucky enough to do it right, more so if you’re lucky enough to do it often. About this Theroux has always been correct. “Travel is the opposite of a holiday,” he wrote in a 1999 New York Times op-ed. “It is about enlightenment, and at its best, is a form of disappearance.”

This disappearance—that which makes the traveler a “specter” in the world—is a recurring theme throughout “Ghost Train,” as Theroux once again ventures out from London by rail to explore the hinterlands of a changed, changing Asia. Parts of his original itinerary are no longer possible—Afghanistan and Iran are off-limits to him in 2006—and so the tracks take him through Eastern Europe, Central Asia, India, Southeast Asia, China (closed to Theroux on his first trip), Japan and across Siberia back to London. Despite the altered map, the trip brings back complicated, familiar emotions for him. “Travel can induce such a distinct and nameless feeling of strangeness and disconnection in me that I feel insubstantial,” the author writes, “like a puff of smoke, merely a ghost, a creepy revenant from the underworld, unobserved and watchful among real people ...”

It is fitting, then, that Theroux’s travels wind through some of the most haunted countries in the world: an India more over-populated than ever, a post-tsunami Sri Lanka ravaged by sectarian violence. Almost three decades after the hell-on-earth reign of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia struggles to maintain what little infrastructure it has and to fend off the foreigners who come to sexually exploit its children. “The ghostliness was present even in the sunniest parts of town,” Theroux writes of Siem Reap, “a suggestion of the hideous past, of blood and unburied bodies, of torture, trickery, lies, punishment—like the darkness I had felt rising from the earth when I walked through Dachau, the stink of evil.”

Similarly, Theroux finds the people of Myanmar have been all but crushed under the weight of military dictatorship, and this part of his journey yields some of the most compassionate, humble writing in the book. It also brings Theroux to reflect on his own role as a ghost returning to his former life: “If a place, after decades, is the same, or worse than before, it is almost shaming to behold. Like a prayer you regret has been answered, it exists as a mirror image of yourself, the traveler, who has to admit: I’m the same too, but aged—wearier, frailer, fractured, abused, weaker, shabbier, spookier.”

Faced with the political graft and social distress in places like Cambodia and Myanmar, Theroux ruminates on the circumstances rather than raging against them (as he did in his book about returning to Africa, “Dark Star Safari”). “Older, I began to understand transformation as a natural law,” he says in the book’s first chapter. “Nothing is perfect, nothing is complete, nothing lasts.”

Theroux’s softened attitude undoubtedly says something about the perspective that age has given him, but it also speaks to the happier circumstances of his own life. We learn that while he was traveling through Asia for his “Great Railway Bazaar” journey, he was “miserable” the entire time, guilt-ridden for leaving his wife and children behind. Upon his return, he discovered that his wife had been having an affair. When writing “The Great Railway Bazaar,” he says, “I made the book jolly, and like many jolly books it was written in an agony of suffering, with the regret that in taking the trip I had lost what I valued most: my children, my wife, my happy household.” 

There is marked change in the author’s temperament, certainly, but one of the greatest differences between the man who wrote “The Great Railway Bazaar” and the one who wrote “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star” is that this time, he is traveling as Paul Theroux, Writer, which perhaps keeps him from being as “unobserved” as he once was, but also makes new opportunities possible. There is a dinner party with Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul, a visit with Arthur C. Clarke (author of “2001: A Space Odyssey”) in Colombo, a tour of “underground” Tokyo with Haruki Murakami, a stroll through southern Japan with Pico Iyer. Would anyone not kill for this man’s connections?

While Theroux finds certain places from his first trip greatly diminished, others bustle with a new vitality. Istanbul is more vibrant and welcoming than he remembered (“I had been too young and hurried to appreciate its virtue,” he says), and Bangkok “had gotten bigger but had kept its soul.” The desperate, devastated Vietnam that Theroux evoked so well in the early ‘70s is now wholly renewed, “the embodiment of peace and hope.” Throughout the book he is as eager to revel in Asia’s improvements as he is to mourn its decay. (In fact, the words “pleasant” and “lovely” and even “uplifting” appear so many times in “Ghost Train” that I at one point wrote in the margin: “Is this Paul Theroux?”)

The old Theroux is still there, though, still as trenchant as ever, only this time he seems to have found the right targets for ridicule. He dubs Turkmenistan “Loonistan” for the unchecked megalomania of its then-president, Saparmurat Niyazov (who renamed the days of the week and months of the year, one after the title of his own book); Singapore, under the über-strict dictates of prime minister Lee Kwan Yew, “is a place of great loneliness and fear, the apprehension of people who know they are forever being watched.” And yet Theroux largely keeps his criticisms to the governments’ officials who create these climates, rather than skewering the citizens themselves. Here he is not pointing out their flaws; he is trying to understand their lives.

Despite its colorful vignettes and frequent humor, there’s a layer of seriousness—not a darkness, but a seriousness—to “Ghost Train” that directly relates to the war in Iraq. In a globalized Asia, American politics radiate outward, and Theroux finds that most people have an opinion on America’s invasion of Iraq. Hardly any of them (exactly two) support the actions of the Bush administration. Theroux uses the history of Asia as a strong lens for focusing this point. In Cambodia, for example, he finds that the Khmer Rouge used an “enhanced interrogation technique” not too far-removed from water-boarding:

The traveler’s conceit is that barbarism is something singular and foreign, to be encountered halfway around the world in some pinched and parochial backwater. The traveler journeys to this remote place and it seems to be so: he is offered a glimpse of the worst atrocities that can be served up by a sadistic government. And then, to his shame, he realizes that they are identical to ones advocated and diligently applied by his own government.

He learns that the people of the world resent (and fear) American policies abroad, but nearly everyone envies the lives Americans lead. The world has its eyes turned west.

“Ghost Train to the Eastern Star” is Paul Theroux at his best. It is a gracious, expansive book that lives up to the gifts of its author, and delivers on the premise he set out to unpack in 1975, that “anything is possible on a train.” Even more is possible, perhaps, on the ghost train.

Bronwen Dickey's writing has appeared in Newsweek, Oxford American, Islands, The San Francisco Chronicle and The Independent Weekly.

3 Comments for Unsentimental Journeys: Wrestling With Paul Theroux

Julia 08.13.08 | 5:56 PM ET

Nice review. Ghost Train just landed in my mailbox - can’t wait to start it.

Alexis Wolff 08.14.08 | 9:19 PM ET

Loved it, Bronwen. And how nice to stumble upon your byline in the course of my daily interneting!

Torah 10.04.08 | 5:25 PM ET

Amazing review. I personally did not read this book, but I did read “Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown”. I’m sure anyone who liked this book will also like Dark Star Safari; I recommend it.

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