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The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia (Penguin Modern Classics) Paperback – 27 Mar 2008
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One of the most entertaining books I have read in a long while . . . Superb comic detail (Angus Wilson Observer)
He has done our travelling for us brilliantly (William Golding) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Paul Theroux decided to board every train that chugged into view, from Victoria Station to Tokyo Central; to take the branch line to Simla, the spur through the Khyber Pass and the chord line that links Indian Railways with those of Ceylon; the Mandalay Express, the Malaysian Golden Arrow, the locals in Vietnam and the trains with bewitching names, the Orient Express, the North Star, the Trans-Siberian. The result is the story of an adventure fuelled by the romance of the railways. In the fine old tradition of purposeless travel for fun and adventure . . . compulsive reading Graham Green More than a rich and original entertainment. His people, places and asides will stay a long time jostling in the mind of the reader V. S. Pritchett One of the most entertaining books I have read Angus Wilson --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.See all Product description
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As for the content and feel of the book I found it humourless and dark; certainly a different attitude to my own travel experiences.
In contrasts to these two volumes, which were written by an older and wiser Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar (1975) - a circular train journey from London, right round Asia, and back to London again - is a much less learned affair. Once I understood the priorities and preferences of the young Theroux in this book I wondered how on Earth it could be a good read: Theroux doesn't know much about most of the countries he travels through, he only gets off the train when he can't help doing so (or to give one of the lectures which, together with an advance from his publisher, helped fund his trip - see the new introduction by Theroux himself), he openly admits that he hates sightseeing, he travels in the most luxurious (and expensive) part of the trains that he can (which often means in a private compartment) and he doesn't have a taste for idle conversation with those he meets. Not the best ingredients for a travel book, I thought, and a sharp contrast to the knowledgeable, constantly questioning and investigative older Theroux.
But somehow this is a fascinating book, and probably the best out of the three Theroux travel books I have read. Theroux's intelligence shines through - his observations, though unfounded by research, are perceptive and valid - if he doesn't get things right, his guesses are still good ones and interesting in themselves. He's a great prose writer and always a pleasure to read. And he does end up having interesting encounters and the ones he chooses to relate are usually the more bizarre. They never go anywhere, and strange and enigmatic incidents and conversations are cut off as he parts ways with these fellow voyagers, their mysteries never to be resolved.
For many years, I traveled across the United States by slow trains (on a free pass) over 72 hours. I was always glad to have the trip end . . . except for that one time I met an interesting young woman (but that's a story for another time).
I would find the kind of trip that Mr. Theroux describes to be unendurable. It's not surprising that he did, too. And that spoils much of the potential fun of this book.
He is fixated on giving you more than you ever wanted to know about bad meals, poor ticket-buying experiences, missing visas, getting drunk, poor sanitary facilities, and unpleasant companions. Mr. Theroux takes himself very seriously. That's too bad. A little humor about his situation would have helped.
From Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, it's not hard to know why: His marriage was falling apart and he couldn't really afford the trip. All I can say is that his problems show.
Imagine instead that a poor person had been granted this same opportunity: It would have been like a magic carpet ride. Unfortunately, you take yourself with you when you are a travel writer.
There are some good moments in the book. Occasionally, Mr. Theroux has enough knowledge about a country and its people to use his journey to comment in a helpful way about the culture. Most Americans will be fascinated to read about South Vietnam after American troops had pulled out and before the final reunification by force. In the early going, a fellow traveler makes the mistake of spending a little too much time at a station . . . with consequences that Mr. Theroux has some fun with.
Japanese people may not like the portrait that Mr. Theroux displays of their nation. It has little to do with railways and railway travel.
Fans of India, by contrast, may enjoy his relative enthusiasm for that populous and challenging nation.
Sometimes the material isn't in the best of taste. I didn't really need to read about his investigation of the ladies-for-hire offerings in an Asian country.
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