THE REVIEW - 17 JANUARY 2009
- A review of Paul Theroux's Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (Penguin, 2008)
It's now a world of travelers. So says Paul Theroux, who's logged the miles to know. Wandering and describing this increasingly accessible world for more than thirty years, the Massachusetts native has written fiction and nonfiction that, among many other feats, have taken us deep into Africa, by foot along nearly every mile of the English coast, and paddling among the Pacific's remotest islands. As more and more people travel -- and attempt to write about it -- perhaps no other scribbler, as he calls himself, has more convincingly shown he can touch down in an unfamiliar locale and make the reader care not only about the people and places encountered, but leave the experience knowing more about themselves, and how they might live better.
With his latest book, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Theroux returns to his first great glory: Riding trains. It's this episodic and mannered mode of travel that first showcased the author's great gift for cool observation and gripping narrative. In a trip undertaken thirty-three years ago, we encountered a young and hungry searcher riding the rails from London as far east as the sun sets: Japan. Armed with little more than a rucksack and the staggering weight of a family to support, the untested writer labored to take the "little bits of uncompleted life" he witnessed and "reach conclusions on the basis of slender evidence." It seemed like a hopeful experiment at best, but the resulting book, The Great Railway Bazaar, was a worldwide success, launching the Peace Corps veteran and former university professor into a long and serious career of describing his travels.
In renewing his vows to the rail, the now-67-year-old Theroux seeks to retrace that young trip. This time, our guide is both more confident and more patient. "Being invisible -- the usual condition of the older traveler -- is much more useful than being obvious," he writes. "You see more, you are not interrupted, you are ignored." But you also have rather more refined hungers. Long-time Theroux readers and others accustomed to a certain privation in travel writing will wince when he reports in the first pages of a splendid meal of French wine and bouillabaisse.
All the years and thick sauces aside, Ghost Train remains loyal to Theroux's first principles -- a kind of subtly inspiring writing I first encountered in Happy Isles of Oceania, his 1992 chronicle of a South Pacific ramble. In my eyes, the trick is that Theroux undergirds exploration with a foundation both deeply personal and admirably learned. As he glides over a calm sea (or considers the Russian steppes from his sleeping car), we ache not just for the setting sun, but for what we've come to know about his personal life. Likewise, as Theroux encounters sea-worshipping islanders (or hard-drinking Kazakhs on a rail platform), the reader is just as moved by the author's impressive ability to quote enlightening material from the good canon of travelers who've preceded us.`With his latest book, the preceding travelers aren't only the specters of Tolstoy and Conrad, but also a younger incarnation of the author himself. As such, this is a veteran writer considering his legacy. When Theroux reaches Istanbul, and it's not straight to the Hagia Sofia, but instead a meeting with Orhan Pamuk, perhaps Turkey's greatest living writer and as of 2006 a Nobel Prize winner. Theroux isn't always celebrated these days, but I see this meeting with Pamuk not as an unwashed travel writer's fortuitous opportunity, but as a chance for the lad from Medford to measure Pamuk against his own accomplishments. It felt like a privilege to bear witness.
Privilege and prizes aside, it should be said: This is work. Lonely work. One of the small and sad moments in the book is when a woman on a train, debriefed on the author's long literary life, regards Theroux as if he's insane. Her shock: You do this alone? Yes, entirely alone.
For anyone, solitary travel can be a kind of very deliberate thrashing around the globe, in which the seeker endeavors to take a hard look both at himself and unfamiliar situations. The travel writer makes it even harder, attempting to describe this thrashing without coming off as a dilettante.
Both in these pages and over a lifetime's output, Theroux has seemed to have thoroughly defeated such charges, arguing again and again that the man with mud on his boots is at least as eloquent (and probably more enjoyable) than the one back at the office. Take his emotional and candid assessment of Singapore:
"While I wrote my notes at night, my hand began to shake. It seemed ungrateful to be criticizing, yet it was horribly unfair that there was so little room for people to grow and be happy . . . The city-state kept evolving, but because the rule was 'conform or leave,' Singaporeans remained in a condition of arrested development, all the while being reminded that they were lucky to be governed by inspired leadership."
Luckily for us, the Singapore scenes are matched by equally vivid portraits of Turkmenistan, Japan, Russia, and Vietnam -- indeed, almost the entire Ghost Train trip consists of such slow and soulful work.
One exception is Theroux's dip into China, an encounter with money-obsessed hyper-activity that leads him to conclude he may never visit again. It's a moment to mourn the now-accomplished author's freedom to bypass that which does not please him. But when the old man's train finds him in Cambodia, another no-less challenging locale, we're rewarded with a line of thought only age and experience could bring: That the adventurer is actually house-hunting. As Theroux reasons, perhaps each new burg, hamlet, and oasis encountered is not necessarily context for a life already lived, but instead another place where one could set down new roots, a prism by which each of us might see how to live better, or at least differently.
The stakes are high -- perhaps too high for some. In reality, most of the time we're all fairly rooted, grappling with how to pay for the milk, the rent, and what story to tell ourselves and others about the wars raging on the horizon. We may never move to or even visit the bomb-cratered datelines of yesterday and today, but in a smaller, more connected world, it's almost absurd not to want to know more.
All these years after Theroux first followed the rising of the eastern sun -- at a time when the United States adventure in Vietnam defined the global conversation -- perhaps the most significant and perplexing change we get in this second trip is seeing how an American's interaction with the world's people now concerns Islam, George Bush, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It takes no great visionary to see the thriving populace in Vietnam and hope that 33 years from now, perhaps a third train trip would pass through a remade Iraq and a mellowed out Iran. Theroux himself professes little hope. But knowing how brightly his fires burn and how hard he's worked to remount this second train trip, it's hard not to imagine him mad that he may be too old to make his third return.
As for this second return to the rails, it may not be the ideal first ride for those new to Theroux, but Ghost Train is at any rate another substantial contribution to the author's effort to take his record of the long road voluntarily taken and make from it a guide to leaving our world a slightly less bewildering and foreign place.
This piece was published by the Review. The original has inexplicably vanished.