Three decades later, Theroux re-creates his grand train tour of Asia
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar
By Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin, 496 pp., $28
If it's true that books themselves face obsolescence, perhaps it's fair to wonder whether a rather old-fashioned, unanchored travelogue - I went here and there; I saw this and that - like Paul Theroux's "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star," a re-creation of Theroux's once-epic journey from west to east chronicled over 30 years ago in his celebrated bestseller, "The Great Railway Bazaar," might point the way to the exit.
The sad fact is that since 1973, when a youthful Theroux marked himself on the literary map by heading east, looping out across Asia, starting and ending in London, where he had left a wife not the least enchanted by his wanderlust, the world has been pretty much overdiscovered, overexposed, and overused, its former mysteries readily accessible, if not downright unavoidable, to even the most incurious couch potato with cable TV.
Theroux himself, ironically, became a prime inspiration for the nuclear age of tourism and its myriad variations in the last decades of the 20th century, all of which resulted in a booming industry - adventure travel, ecotourism, disaster tourism, magazines like Outside and Conde Nast Traveler, Lonely Planet guides, the Discovery and Travel channels, the swarming of the planet fueled by cheap tickets, Peace Corps volunteers like Theroux himself, military deployments and globalization, satellite mapping, and the ability for real-time blogging from the slopes of Everest. Of the tens of thousands of armchair travelers who will surely read "Ghost Train," few would not be familiar on some level with the places Theroux zips through at a tempo that occasionally invites superficiality, vignettes, and reports amounting to little more than what can be found scribbled on a postcard, the author nibbling through continents as if they were immense platters of crudités and then falling sated into the berth of a night train, the world between stations passing in darkness.
Much unlike classic historical travelogues - Robert Byron's "The Road to Oxiana" (1937), for instance - unveiling and inventing the shadow-filled corners of the world for an audience that was never going to get there except in their imaginations, contemporary travel narratives have to struggle for purpose, and against a stiff competition for novelty in an environment where the exotic mostly exists as a banal marketing ploy. Even Theroux describes his contribution to "the literature of revisitation" as aimless, idle, nostalgic, sentimental, and acknowledges that most of his favorite authors never backtracked to take their great trips again. "Greene never returned to the Liberian bush, nor to Mexico, nor to Vietnam. In his late fifties, Waugh dismissed modern travel altogether as mere tourism and a waste of time. . . . Thesiger did not return to Rub' al Khali, the Empty Quarter of Arabia. Burton did not mount another expedition to Utah. . . . Darwin never went to sea again. Neither did Joseph Conrad, who ended up hating the prospect of seafaring."
Why go back? What, other than the obvious opportunity for another book (his 43d!), is the payoff? The pleasures Theroux encounters are expected - intimate conversations with kind strangers, a tasty bowl of noodles, the light falling a certain sublime way over a desert landscape, a hotelier who remembers him from long ago - and no one will be surprised, three decades after his original journey, that Theroux discovers: 1. The world has changed for the better - India, for example, is now modern, prosperous, and self-confident; even rickshaw wallahs have cell phones. 2. The world remains the same, a truth most embodied by the homeless squatters living at the New Delhi train station, the squalid scene unchanged since Mark Twain described it more than a century ago. And 3. The world has changed for the worse - India's unmanageable overpopulation destined to sink the boat.
As in his earlier book, Theroux puts the brakes on his relentless momentum long enough to deliver some of his strongest writing and rewarding commentary on his beloved India, particularly when he immerses himself among the "frenzied careerists of Mumbai" and his prose explodes with texture, depth, and wisdom. Theroux reflects brilliantly on the jarring surreal juxtapositions of the tribal and the corporate, the primitive and the high-tech, Mumbai's citizens able to discuss widow-burning and arranged marriages in the same breath as hedge funds and computer software, his observations culminating in a powerful meditation on the hostility of America's poor in painful contrast to the hospitality of India's. These passages of extraordinary insight are reminiscent of the pre-9/11 travelogues of Robert Kaplan, another writer famous for his peregrinations across enormous swaths of the planet, but unlike Kaplan, whose judgment collapsed with the World Trade Center, Theroux boasts of his disdain for geopolitics, a regrettable lack of interest for an author who can so eloquently articulate the forces at play in the world.
The tally proceeds, month after month. Vietnam: better. Sri Lanka: worse. Thailand: sweet and wonderful as it has always been (except for the insurrection of its Muslim population in the south). Japan is . . . intractably Japan, but wow, check out Tokyo's multistoried sex shops and its brothels tailored for every conceivable fantasy.
From London to Siberia and back again, however, the core issue has consistently been self-addressed, and Theroux has not been shy about chewing on it: Why am I taking this trip? Who was I when I was young, and who am I now that I am old? Have I changed, and how? Good enough reason to fling yourself out beyond the boundaries of your life, restless and yearning for what simply isn't there: a convincing, immutable answer.
The world remains marvelous nevertheless. And Paul Theroux owns it.
Bob Shacochis, novelist and travel writer, is the author of "The Woman Who Lost Her Soul," forthcoming from Grove/Atlantic in 2009.