Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar
By Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin; 496 pages; $28
Reviewed by Christine Thomas
Thirty-three years ago, author and part-time Pupukea resident Paul Theroux undertook an ambitious 28,000-mile train journey across Asia and wrote about it in “The Great Railway Bazaar,” a book he now sardonically clepes “the story of trip that younger, opportunistic punks often take to make a book and get famous.” Then in 2006, just because of “curiosity…, the usual idleness, with a hankering to be away,” Theroux again embarked on the same journey—with the exception of impassable Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran—to discover what had changed, and recounted it in his new book “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar.”
The aptly titled, riveting narrative, which Theroux wrote during his trip along with three novellas published last year as “The Elephanta Suite,” begins with sharp, melancholic reflections, including his first marriage’s painful demise during his first trip and the point of returning to places you once traveled, since “[i]t is almost impossible to return to an early scene in your traveling life and not feel like a specter.” But though Theroux may feel older and act tamer, and the journey covers the same geography, the story is as fresh as a brand-new adventure.
The book steadily transitions from his first ride on the Eurostar from London to Paris to a glittering Istanbul; through “[t]he austere torpor of the Stans”—complete with a hilarious recounting of then Turkmenistan ruler Turkmenbashi’s insane leadership—; India “where everyone seemed overqualified for whatever job they were doing” and whose poverty and overpopulation offers a glimpse of the world’s future; and onward to such dramatic stops as the tsunami-razed coasts of Sri Lanka, a Rangoon that has “hardly changed at all,” and first-time side trips such as Hanoi.
Along the way are illuminating chance encounters, friends offering tales from the past, speaking engagements, welcoming diners, and meetings with authors—like cruising Tokyo with novelist Haruki Murakami, one of the most beguiling sections of the book. Theroux’s regular conversations with locals and thoughtful segues position the cities in just enough historical, political and cultural context, accompanied by delightful explorations of “the topography of literature” and characteristically astute, epigrammatic observations.
Uber-confident and seemingly fearless, Theroux swiftly negotiates with taxi drivers and touts, pushes himself on to crowded trains and walks across borders. Brief moments of insecurity, such as his confession that a stint of hitchhiking was humbling or a pedicab trip frightening, make his journey more relevant but paradoxically hint that much of Theroux’s inner experiences, and some outer ones, are surely left out. Unfortunately we aren’t spared numerous attempts to validate his theory that “a country’s pornography offers the quickest insight into the culture and inner life of a nation, and especially the male character…” by seeking out the sex trade in every city. Only his visit to Singapore’s surprising government-sanctioned prostitution district is truly revelatory.
But the journey’s sheer breadth, alighting on places even seasoned travelers may never visit, is the book’s power, revealing the pulse of lands living in the shadow of the Iraq war and yet yearning to go west. And ultimately, because Paul Theroux is at home in the world, and in the landscape of words, reading “Ghost Train” makes you feel that way too.