Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux

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Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux

Category: Travel
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Theroux sets out to retrace a journey undertaken in 1973, travelling the railways of Europe, the Indian subcontinent and wider Asia, in search of the changes wrought in the intervening time: in places and in himself.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 496 Date: May 2009
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978-0141015729

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Some 30-odd years ago Paul Theroux, then half the age he is now, travelled overland across Europe and Asia. The result was 'his best known book' (apparently) – The Great Railway Bazaar.

My only previous encounter with the author was Riding the Iron Rooster, which had me vicariously accompanying him through China some fifteen years later and proved, if nothing else, that the man travels the long slow way because he enjoys it. As a writer who travels, rather than a travel writer per se (his fifteen non-fiction works, not all of which are travel, are accompanied by twenty seven books of fiction), it's fitting. Writing is a slow, solitary business, full of fits and starts and rushes and waitings. Much like travelling overland at the whim of the local transport.

Whatever his reasons, and pleasure appears in this case to be the least of them, thirty three years after that initial jaunt, Theroux sets out to recreate the journey.

He plays his cards face up very early on in the hope perhaps that we'll forget them once we get under way. He might only be in his sixties, but he's feeling his age and the cold and the gout. He's past living it up at night and prefers to retire of an evening to work on his notes and his stories. He admits that The Great Railway Bazaar wasn't entirely truthful in its telling. He deliberately made the book jolly, even though he'd known while writing it and had already clearly suspected while taking the journey that his home-life was falling apart. Is it that much of a falsehood, if tone were all he changed? I think so. The very fact that he speaks of travel writing as being the nearest I will come to autobiography tells of his mistaken belief that a true travelogue could be anything other. Close enough seems to be his motto. I have to disagree. When we travel we see what is there, but we see it through the lens of who we are at the time, with all the distortions that might bring. To change tone is to change perception, and perception is surely the whole point of travelling.

Those early revelations coloured my view of this journey. Has anything here been coloured in slightly different shades, I kept wondering.

Then there is also the fact that the retracing the 1973 route idea is itself a conceit. It cannot be done. Countries that were open and relatively safe then are war zones now. Contrariwise: the closed borders of the seventies are now open to all comers. The world has changed as much – and as little – as our author. That is the real point of this expedition. To see how much each has really altered in the intervening decades.

Borders have shifted. Wars have been fought and lost. Seeing the world through Theroux's eyes and those who haunt the fought-over-lands, it's hard to find one that anyone actually won. Developing countries are in some cases outperforming the developed world, on its own terms. And yet many of the places Theroux takes us through haven't changed in centuries. Places not just in the backwaters of the 'Stans but in go-ahead super-modern states like Japan and Singapore as well. Tradition lurks in the backstreets and in the mountain meadows; above all it lurks in the mindsets of the people.

Technology has moved on. In 1973 any traveller was, by definition, out of touch. That is no longer true. Cell phones and blackberrys and internet cafés, mean it's hard to find the remote untouched places…or even to reach the heart of place not-so-remote, but untouched by your own recognisable home-town culture.

I have to admit, in case it's not already evident, to having a problem with Theroux. I don't like him.

I envy his ability as a writer (which I'll come to).

I respect the work that he puts in to the writing and to the lecturing and teaching, indeed even the travelling.

I admire his intellect and the sheer degree to which he is well-read, as he displays a knowledge of literature and history which leaves me feeling simply inadequate.

He has insights as sharp as any Siberian pine frost, knowing that he is a romantic voyeur seeing the snow and the tradition and the beauty and the continuance, where a local sees hardship, economic decline and the emptiness of an aging community.

He is generous, sharing his food, handing on clothing and books, offering to invest in the future of a struggler's education.

I appreciate his real take on the events in that he doesn't hide the mundane hardships of prolonged travel: the weariness, the illnesses, the poor food and worse hygiene, the occasional desire to punch some supercilious soul in the voice-box.

But I still don't like him. The mild distaste started with that admission about the earlier work, and the shadow it cast. How true, I wonder, every assertion of having walked on past those flickering alluring lights of sexual enticement in the backstreets? Knowing that this time his wife, is dutifully waiting at home with the knitting (not the version of Penelope that I recall?)…is he fibbing a tad? Maybe he didn't go in. Maybe he didn't go anywhere near and their very presence is a fictional dislocation for effect.

Maybe it grew with every intellectual snippet which, even while I turned down corners vowing to look up the references and expanding my reading list into the next millennium, I felt as a slight: feeling that he expected any reader worthy of him to know whereof he spoke.

Certainly it solidified with a trainbound conversation in which he runs down the exploits of Michael Palin on the grounds that he has the resources of the BBC behind him, and someone to book his tickets, and (sin above all others) doesn't travel alone. Of course it's true. Just as it's true that Theroux's own trip has been meticulously planned with the book in mind. Whether he was paid an advance or not is immaterial…this is a commercial journey (in the way that the Bazaar epic wasn't). He has speaking engagements and lectures, which presumably weren't set up on a phone call as he happenstanced in some far flung university. At this stage of his career, his contact list is impressive – and of course he makes use of it: to speak to authors and diplomats and the like. He knows that the book will get written and will sell. I have no issue with that – except that aforementioned envy – networks are exploited: it is there nature, indeed their purpose. My problem is in his condemnation of others for using their resources in precisely the same way.

By the time he was rehearsing his views on Naipaul in conversation with Pico Iyer, I was simply feeling enough already! this isn't relevant. I was ready to abandon him there and then and travel home alone…… but for the fact that Iyer made such an interesting guide (& Theroux allowed him to speak).

Why then did I persevere through the months and the thousands of miles and nearly five hundred pages with this man who irritated me so? Partially, because the compilation of that reading list is a challenge and an enticement…and the fact that he has travelled these rail-roads and I have not (and would want to)… but ultimately because of the writing.

Theroux keeps you moving by shifting pace. One minute relaying a conversation verbatim examining the current political situation, the next reciting poetry ancient or modern. He conjures up people and place: out of the chaos or receipt books, carbon paper, flickering computers and fat files tied with faded ribbons arise decisiveness and clear results, even if you can't read the writing and your fingers are smudged with ink from reading them…or elsewhere hovering, heavy, oppressively haunted air. He throws in history and the life stories of the people he meets.

He's the traveller I will never be: the one who openly asks what do you earn, what are your dreams and why. And I want to know those answers just as much as he does.

He's also the one who openly takes notes, whereas I cow with politeness and try to reconstruct later.

And clearly, he does the work. Comments abound that suggest he too comes home and has to look things up.

The result is not just a fascinating journey in place and time; but for the absence of an index it would be a useable reference work on all manner of incidental information. Vivid and readable the Observer critic called it, but that seems a little trite for an epic journey well-told.

I just wish I could like the man a little more.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If you enjoyed this, for another overland journey recreating travels past try Rory Maclean's Magic Bus.

Buy Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux at Amazon.com.


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