Reading 'Ghost Train to the Eastern Star' is to be transported immediately into the presence of a master of his craft. Perhaps one of the greatest travel writers alive, Paul Theroux revisits the journey he took through Europe and Asia 33 years ago, musing along the way on how both he, and the countries he travels through, have altered over the years.
But where his writing is undeniably engaging, especially when he relates his talks with fellow authors he meets along the way, the conclusions he draws never ascend from the mire of cliches in which he seems to wallow. Thus India is uniformly hot, oppressive and overpopulated, Thailand is a land of beautiful women and the sex industry, Japan is a living embodiment of manga cartoons, and Russia is replete with hardened alcoholics. Much of his ire is reserved for Singapore, whose citizens are described as being homogenously rude and brash - could this perhaps be because Theroux, who used to lecture there, left the country on a bad note?
To his credit, Theroux acknowledges at the beginning that a travel writer, passing through a place for only a few days, can never aspire to anything other than generalizations. It seems a pity, then, that in his generalizations Theroux seems unwilling to look beyond the stereotypes or to challenge the assumptions so often made by tourists from abroad. One almost wonders if he actively went looking for the cliches, so trite are some of his images.
This, then, is where the book must rest; a travel book not so much about the places themselves, but about the author, a journey not so much of physical distance and travel, but of temporal distance and a philosophical quest. In this, it does not disappoint.