Books

Theroux back on the train

Thirty-three summers ago, a normally reserved friend of mine fairly burst through my screen door, fumbling a book in his hand. He stuck it under my nose. "Read this immediately," he demanded.

It was Paul Theroux's "The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia," chronicling his epic journey, taken alone and fraught with peril, overland by train whenever possible through Europe and Asia to Japan and back across the vast expanse of The Soviet Union from Vladivostok to Moscow aboard the Trans-Siberian Express, thence to London, returning to the same train station he had departed four and a half months earlier.

For me as for thousands of others, "The Great Railway Bazaar" was a transformative experience. Theroux radically revised the genre, focusing not on destinations but on the experience of travel -- the tedium, the anxiety and the small rewards of getting from place to place. Instead of the usual accounts of museums and monuments, Theroux developed characters, recorded dialogue and gave us strange and wonderful encounters in far-flung regions. It had the narrative drive of a first-rate novel and the unfakable gut of nonfiction. This, you felt, was really happening. The "Bazaar" became a best-seller and instant classic

Since then, Theroux has given us travel books covering the Americas, England, China, the Mediterranean, Oceania and Africa, all marked by the same distinctive eye and voice, the same thoughtfulness, personal courage and sanity.

Thirty-three years after he took the "Bazaar" trip, Theroux retraced his route, or most of it, in "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star," a brilliant reprisal of his earlier trip, displaying Theroux's singular powers of observation, at sketching people and places with extraordinary economy and precision.

Much has changed, of course. Choked India is now more desperate and taxing than ever, a nation divided, or multiplied: a jumble of cell phones and saris, of Ravis and Kapoorchands remade as IT drones Bob and Josh jostling with vast impoverished traditional populations. Thailand is similarly a gazpacho of the ancient and ultramodern, of indigenous and imported. Miraculously resilient, Vietnam has emerged from the nightmare of war as a vibrant nation of superb food and spirited entrepreneurship.

On the other hand, countries brutalized by civil war or criminal regimes, Sri Lanka and Myanmar for example, seem to have changed hardly at all, their architecture beautifully arcane, their people often desperate but still friendly and clinging to hope.

Theroux's usual preoccupations are the stuff of "Ghost Train": his love of locomotion; his fascination with pornography and the sex trade; his engagement with cultural and literary traditions; his trenchant critique of political regimes; his hatred of missionaries; his delight at finding someone reading one of his books in a faraway place; and his custom of searching out important writers to interview along the way. We get encounters with Nobel laureate Orham Pamuk in Istanbul, the moribund Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka, Haruki Murakami and Pico Iyer in Japan.

Though true to the spirit of the earlier book, "Ghost Train" is unlike "The Great Railway Bazaar" in two significant ways. Devotees will be disappointed that Theroux doesn't take the Simplon Orient Express to Istanbul (the trip would have cost $9,000) opting for the much cheaper (and drearier) northerly route through Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest. He is refused a visa for Iran, and Afghanistan is out of the question, which means that from Istanbul, he travels through Georgia and the Stans next door -- Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- flying over Pakistan to Amritsar. From northern India, he's essentially faithful to his earlier route.

The second difference is more significant. The "Bazaar" trip was half a life ago. Now in his mid-60s, Theroux is a changed man, keenly aware of the sadness and loss that comes with retracing the past as an older man. A nostalgia hovers over the new book -- not leaden or sentimental but penumbrous -- close to the etymological sense of the word, to return home (nostos) with pain (algia). Hidden in the earlier book, for instance, we learn that the "Bazaar" trip had cost him his first marriage, which collapsed in his long absence.

Theroux calls upon Wordsworth and Yeats to frame the grief and the rich understanding that come with revisiting our youth, which deepens the book, making it more generous, tolerant and sympathetic than anything Theroux has written. This is especially evident in Myanmar and the killing fields of Cambodia.

But if Theroux has mellowed with time, he has not lost his edge. Readers who complained that he is not a happy traveler, and those who have loved him for the same reason, will not be disappointed. His exasperated reaction to Turkmenistan is a brilliant rant against its maniacal despot, Saparmyrat Niyazov, who named the year 2003 after his father and 2004 -- as well as bread -- after his mother. Theroux crossed into Uzbekistan just ahead of the state police. The superficially sanitized Singapore, where Theroux was cashiered as a lecturer in English at the National University in the early '70s, also comes under withering attack. Singaporeans are "tinky-winky" puppets, neither fat nor poor nor badly dressed but cowed by the fear of violating the quirky restrictions imposed upon them by the bizarrely neurotic 84-year-old autocrat, Lee Kuan Yew. The city's glittering surfaces hide an ugly underside of heartless touts hawking child prostitutes in seedy alleyways.

If there is a weakness in "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star," it's the final section from the Siberian coast through Moscow back to London, more than 10,000 miles that Theroux covers in 30-some pages. But this is a quibble. "Ghost Train" is a brave, accomplished and deeply rewarding book, whether you've read "The Great Railway Bazaar" or not. With 40 or so works of fiction and nonfiction to his credit, "Ghost Train" should take Paul Theroux a sure step closer to the dais in Stockholm and the ultimate reward for a life of finely crafted and important writing.

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