on 13 March 2010
In "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star" the famous American travel writer Paul Theroux, now in old age, retraces the route that he took as a young man and which led to his breakthrough book "The Great Railway Bazaar" (The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia (Penguin Modern Classics)). This offers an opportunity not just for another travel book about Asia and reflections on what has changed in that mighty continent in the last 30-odd years, but also for reflections on the changes to Theroux himself. The narration for that reason is more personal and more philosophical than most of his works, which gives the book a warm atmosphere.
Theroux generally in this book is as competent, lively and observant as ever, making the book excellent reading for fans of his work. That he reveals more about the circumstances in which he wrote his first great book and the vagaries of his life only add to this. However, there are some flaws also. Theroux gets somewhat too ponderous about being old and the consequences of this, so the endless ruminations on the strength of old people can get on one's nerves, and it also seems to have led to an entirely baseless playing up of the value of Buddhist theology. Aside from that, there are also more and more significant errors than usual. Stalin did not kill 40 million people; Putin was never leader of the KGB (in fact he had a fairly unimportant job); Hitler was not born in Linz, but in Braunau am Inn; and so on. He also seems to have nothing good to say about Europe any more, and his persistently negative tone about it, even Paris, contrasts oddly with his much more upbeat descriptions of much poorer countries like Sri Lanka and Vietnam.
Nonetheless, the book is just as much a pleasurable classic of travel writing as most of Theroux's other masterpieces. Particularly notable is the interview with the late Sir Arthur C. Clarke, just before he died, which gives an interesting and melancholy insight into the difficult life of that famous writer. Also interesting are his trips through Central Asia, a part of the world rarely visited even by travel writers and which is highly underrepresented in world media, despite its increasing strategic importance relative to places like Iran, Afghanistan, Russia and Pakistan. On the whole, I recommend this book to fans of travel writing, if one is willing to take some of his grumpiness with a pinch of salt.
on 2 June 2009
What makes a great travel writer? Is it an understanding that a travel book does not just reflect the places you are privileged enough to visit, the people you meet or the effect they have one you. Is it the ability to convey to the reader your sense of wonder and occasional bemusement at the experiences you gain?
Paul Theroux has written a series of wonderful travel books; here he retraces a journey made thirty-three years previously and records the changes that have taken place. It is a book about the way the world has changed for better and for worse. The young writer worrying about his marriage has become a happier and more content traveller who finds friendship and something of interest wherever he goes. As he ventures through Asia he looks up other distinguished writers, visits sites of sentimental interest and brings to life scenes which affect him whether it is the sight of child prostitues or relentless sprawling cities. Yet his writing also is a celebration of the magic of train travel by a writer who never becomes rushed and is always intrigued by the men and women who share his compartment.
on 17 March 2009
Having enjoyed "The Great Railway Bazaar" I thought I'd enjoy this but sadly I found it rather disappointing. This is mostly a book about a rather pompous, tetchy man , with some cliched asides about the countries he passes through at breakneck speed. He never visits anywhere but cities, never gets off the beaten track, never really roughs it, in short he's a tourist & not the great traveller he claims to be. Compared to the likes of Eric Newby, Laurens Van der Post or Wilfred Thesiger he is no traveller, & out of living travel writers William Dalrymple & Colin Thubron have more experience & feel for their subjects. Of course this book is well written, you'd expect little less from such an accomplished wordsmith, but it lacks his usual attention to detail at times, such as when he gets on the train to Jodhpur & found a young man & a young woman in his compartment. By the next page & within hours the woman has mysteriously become middle aged.
Suffice to say I'm glad I borrowed this from the library & didn't buy it
on 28 September 2008
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.
on 9 May 2012
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star is one of Paul Theroux's finest travel books. Technically, it's better than the book that inspired it, his own The Great Railway Bazaar, the travelogue that made him famous and set the standard for the genre. Ghost Train is certainly more mature, more polished, and more analytical (take his devastating commentary on Singapore, for example, or Pol Pot, or his interviews with various world writers). Yet, for some inexplicable reason, The Great Railway Bazaar remains superior, or at least "fresher" and certainly more fun.
Not that it really matters, because this is Paul Theroux we're talking about, the godfather of modern-day travel writing. In the genre, there's not a single writer who even comes close. Comparing Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, The Pillars of Hercules, The Happy Isles of Oceania, Kingdom by the Sea, The Old Patagonian Express, and The Great Railway Bazaar is sort of like comparing gemstones; they all shine, whereas Riding the Riding the Iron Rooster and Dark Star Safari are merely very good. Theroux is now in his seventies and one wonders if this isn't his travel-lit coda. I hope not, but the guy can't go on writing forever, something he hints at in this book. What a talent Paul Theroux is, and what a good time it can be to simulate foreign travel with one of his books from the comfort of home. People who say Theroux is misanthropic or judgmental are completely missing the point. He's a bit arrogant maybe, but a little arrogance is necessary if you're going to make a career from the pen, something very few can do these days.
Troy Parfitt is the author of Why China Will Never Rule the World
If you want a book about how to travel by train, skip this one.
If you want a book about what you'll discover about yourself if you revisit old haunts, you may find this book intriguing enough to propel you back to your former hangouts and to review your memories . . . both painful and pleasant.
If you enjoy literary pilgrimages, you'll enjoy several entertaining moments.
If you want keen insights into nations you haven't visited, you won't find enough to warrant reading the book.
If you want a book of great writing, you will probably be disappointed. Mr. Theroux will wow you now and then with brilliant passages . . . particularly in the beginning and end . . . but mostly it's plain vanilla writing.
Why then did I like the book a lot? Mr. Theroux reminded me of a fresh way to look at the world, a way that I used to employ quite often.
Let me explain. When I was growing up, my father worked for the Santa Fe Railway and our family had a pass for free travel from California to Illinois. Most of our long trips were by train. In college, I also traveled across the United States several times to save a few pennies. During those trips, I grew to appreciate places that you never see from an airplane or an interstate highway. Railway travel allowed me to meet many memorable people and to have experiences I otherwise wouldn't have had.
Writers live solitary lives, often more so when they are in a crowd. Railway travel is a buffer between the writer and the world that allows the writer to venture out amongst everyone in a comfortable way. I realized that leaving the writer's cocoon more often is good for the writer and the writer's readers.
Mr. Theroux is generous in sharing his observations during his much earlier trip along a similar route, as well as his feelings as his marriage fell apart. Those perspectives make the observations much more powerful and interesting. He is most comfortable talking about places and times in terms of other authors and conversing with authors. I found those interludes to be particularly intriguing.
Although I didn't learn enough to make me want to organize a particular kind of trip to any of these places, I did gain a sense of how a writer might react to each of the locales. From those observations, I think I know which of these places I would like to visit and which ones not. That aspect was a pleasant surprise.
I was fascinated by the differences in national character demonstrated among the ordinary people he met, most moving in his description of the forgiveness of the Vietnamese people towards ordinary Americans. As he traveled around, people in one country would be happy and enjoying life, while in the next country misery existed regardless of material comforts. As a result, I read the book very slowly. I needed time to digest what he said about each country before I could go on to the next one. To me, that's a sign of good writing: He made me think a lot.
Like many travelers, Mr. Theroux likes to report on some things more than others. I wasn't quite sure why he gives such an encyclopedic description about the sex trade in each nation, but perhaps as a man traveling alone that stood out more than the helpfulness of ordinary people. I could have done with less of that element. I also didn't enjoy his angry dismissal of anyone who is a missionary. What is that all about?
I was especially intrigued to realize that you can get to know people better during a train trip than during other casual contacts in travel. I plan to take advantage of that during my future trips.
All aboard for more understanding!
“I’m the same too, but aged – wearier, frailer, fractured, abused, weaker, shabbier, spookier.” – from GHOST TRAIN TO THE EASTERN STAR
“Delay and dirt are the realities of the most rewarding travel.” – from GHOST TRAIN TO THE EASTERN STAR
“Being on the Trans-Siberian was indeed like being on a ship, not any old ship, and not a cruise liner, but an old iron freighter plowing through a frozen sea, complete with grumpy deckhands, bad food, and an invisible captain.” – from GHOST TRAIN TO THE EASTERN STAR
In 1973, travel writer Paul Theroux journeyed mostly by rail from London across Europe, the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, and then back via the Trans-Siberian. Then he told us readers in our younger days all about it in The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia (Penguin Modern Classics). Here, in GHOST TRAIN TO THE EASTERN STAR, Paul in 2006 more or less retraces the path to see how things had changed. “More” because some places closed to him in 1973, like North Vietnam, were now open; “less” because some formerly open, like Iran and Afghanistan, were now closed. And it couldn’t always be by rail; occasionally he had to resort to taxi, bus, plane, or boat.
His itinerary in GHOST TRAIN takes him across western, central and eastern Europe, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Japan, then back across Russia on the Trans-Siberian. Age 65 when he undertook this epic retour of the memories of his relative youth, one can only admire his strength of purpose in doing so. I’m 66, but, as much as I love to travel, I wouldn’t even consider the same route because of sheer timidity.
The major portion of this travel essay is comprised of his experiences in India and Indochina, bookended at the front and back by the rest of the route. Indeed, it’s just that portion that seems to interest the author the most and the reader is richly rewarded for this focus. The social, economic and cultural differences between Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam – so close in proximity to one another – are profound and fascinating. Thailand has always been on my Bucket List; I now feel compelled to add Vietnam, especially Hanoi.
I see Theroux as I see myself – an aging, regular fella with a curiosity about the world at large who, with minimal luggage that includes a couple of good books and political opinions that are perhaps justified, perhaps not, likes nothing better than to get out and see the sights. I envy him the freedom he’s had in his life to do just that, and honor is due him for keeping the rest of us informed of his adventures.
on 22 June 2014
Although he had previously published a few novels, Paul Theroux really made his name as a writer with his travel book, 'The Great Railway Bazaar', which documented his journey by train in the early 1970s from London to Paris and then by the Orient Express through Eastern Europe to Turkey whence he departed through Southern Asia all the way to Japan, before returning via the Trans-Siberian Express. Of course, there have always been travel books, though Theroux broke new ground by concentrating on descriptions of his journey rather than the destinations. He always took a supply of decent reading with him, and his books often prove as valuable for their literary insights as for the revelations about the countries and places he visits.
'The Great Railway Bazaar was immensely well received, and set a template that Theroux was to revisit several times throughout the rest of his career. To my mind his travel writing has always eclipsed his novels and short stories. I remember more than thirty years ago hearing my Wilfred Massiah, my marvellous English teacher at school, reading the chapter from 'The Old Patagonian Express' in which Theroux attended a football match between El Salvador and Nicaragua which he describes in a manner similar to Dante's descent into the inner rings of Hell - perhaps not without reason as the previous occasion on which those two countries had met at football had ended in them going to war.
'The Ghost Train to the Eastern Star' recounts Theroux's experiences thirty-three years later when he tried to recreate the earlier journey through Europe and Asia. In the intervening period international politics had put their stamp on the globe, especially in the Middle East, which forced some diversions from the earlier route. His original journey had also been made before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the former USSR, and Theroux gives some interesting descriptions of life in 'the Stans', particularly Kyrgyrstan and Turkmenistan. Much, however, remains surprisingly unchanged over the intervening third of a century. Amritsar strikes him as very similar to his memories of being there for the first time, and he remains baffled, but impressed, at how India continues somehow to function as a democracy, rattling along on a bureaucracy that creaks and strains but somehow holds together.
Theroux has always been known for his petulance, and is seldom slow to criticise the countries through which he travels. That trait is to the fore here, though I think it might more ready be termed simple petulance, or even plain rudeness. I am losing count of the number of times that I have read his phrase, 'The toilet was unspeakable.' It occurred two or three times in this book which seems to be par for the Theroux course.
I felt at times that he was struggling with this book, and he occasionally laboured the point over his comparisons with the earlier journey. Still, it was an interesting book and I am glad I read it. I was left, though, as ever feeling that while I am glad I read his book, I am even more glad that I didn't have to meet the writer!
on 13 October 2008
Theroux usually sticks to a formula that has worked well in the past, since he managed his first blockbuster with The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia (Penguin Modern Classics): go to someplace, look around, tread the untrodden path, do some witty observations, and carefully hide your own feelings, writing what looks like a intimate journal, but is really not.
Here, however, revisiting his 70's trip to Asia, also revisits his own feelings when he wrote about that trip and recounts how the physical trip as well as writing about it was an evasion from his own lost life.
Feeling much more comfortable in this trip, he reminisces continuously about his wife, misses home, but still feels comfortable going throuth Asia in a second-class berth surrounded by strangers. Thus, since all trips are inner trips (by his own words), this trip finds him happy and content into his 60s, if a bit cranky.
All in all, it's an interesting book for those who like Theroux, you won't feel deceived.
on 15 April 2010
This is again a really good and readable book by Paul Theroux, whom I deem to be one of the best contemporary travel writers. Although you can sometimes feel that the author is annoyed by certain fellow travellers, I still had the feeling that Theroux is getting a little milder with the years. He is, however, uneasy about the booming Asian superpowers: India is too crowded to be comfortable, and China is not worth travelling at all (which I feel is a little exaggerated). In any case, the mixture of places where hardly anybody travels for fun, like Turkmenistan, and touristy places like Thailand makes the book really vivid.
Another aspect really worth reading is the contrasting of impressions of his first, classical train journey to (nearly) the same places in the 70's ( The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia (Penguin Modern Classics)) with those of his actual journey, whether personal considerations or concerning his travel destinations.