Monday, May 04, 2009


Ghost Train to the Eastern Star


By Paul Theroux


This book has been a good introduction for me to Theroux’s travel writing. Ghost Train to the Eastern Star is about Theroux’s journey to the East, as far as Japan, from London. It is one he has been on 33 years before, and the book that came out of that particular journey was The Great Railway Bazaar, Theroux’s first international best seller. He reprises it as an older man, a happier man, traveling like a ghost, seeing places he had seen before with new and different eyes (“It is only with age that you acquire the gift to evaluate decay”). The one big change is the way he gets to Asia from Europe – he cannot get a visa this time to Iran (the last time he traveled, the Shah was in power in Iran) and Afghanistan is for all purposes closed to travel, so he gets to Delhi through Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. He travels alone, by train mostly, eschews luxury for the common class and lets himself stop and stare when he feels like it. It is a fascinating travelogue peppered with often harsh judgements on entire countries and peoples, heart-warming anecdotes about chance encounters, meetings with famous literary figures in the countries he travels through (Orhan Pamuk in Turkey, Murakami and Pico Iyer in Japan, Arthur C Clarke in Sri Lanka) and references to other writers and their travels (Greene, Orwell, Conrad, Woolfe, Twain – none of whom has ever gone back to the same places again, according to Theroux). All along, there is a parallel earlier journey as reference point; and because I have not read The Great Railway Bazaar, some of the references are lost to me.

One of the more quotable chapters is the first one – where Theroux dissects what he likes about travel (“Hating schedules, depending on chance encounters, I am attracted by travel’s slow tempo”) and what he dislikes about travel books (“Most writing about travel takes the form of jumping to conclusions, and so most travel books are superfluous…little better than a license to bore, travel writing is the lowest form of literary self-indulgence: dishonest complaining, creative mendacity, pointless heroics…”). Well, he himself does jump to a hell of a lot of conclusions, is infuriatingly self-indulgent at times, can be intermittently curmudgeonly; yet there is little dullness, a lot of erudition (his references to literary journeys past are quite awe-inspiring) and he does manage to provoke reaction.

I found the pieces on Turkey (he goes into Istanbul expecting a shabby Asiatic city and instead finds “a grand and re-imagined city of laughing children and beautiful women and swaggering men which had been ignored by Europe and sneered at by Islamic republics”), Vietnam (the war might have been forgiven, but there is little forgetting for a guilt-induced American here) and Central Asia were the most fascinating for me – there are many interesting stories here, throwing light on otherwise dark places.

India disgusts him at some level – its crowds, the anarchy, the free-for-all attitude, the “unfeedable, unhousable, uncontainable 1.3 billion people”. “The Indian miracle” to him is a bad joke – fed on people working for a dollar a day – and there is little that has changed in 33 years in real material terms. The biggest change to him is in the attitude – in the new found confidence of a resurgent middle class that talks progress and praises India’s economy. There are incidents that will happen to gullible white men – paying a bribe for a railway ticket (get on the Indian Railways website I want to tell this Luddite; and get to know what a world-class web ticketing system can do for you!), experiencing a buzz while facing royalty (be it the Rajputs in Jodhpur or Prince Charles on a visit). All in all, the sense one got in his last book set in India ‘The Elephanta Suite’ is the same sense a reader gets here – of a man unable to deal with the chaos and deception that a vast multitudinous country like India can dish out to a visitor.

Sri Lanka is idyllic, Burma and Cambodia are tragedies couched in beauty, Thailand is sweet, nice, orderly, filled with pretty willing women, is proud of their king and the fact that they have never been colonized (the fact that the kingdom was long a protectorate holds no significance). Singapore has a special viciousness reserved for it – “No one was fat. No one was poor. No one was badly dressed. But many Singaporeans had…the half-devil, half-child look of having been infantilized and overprotected by their unstoppably manipulative government” and “Singaporeans are encouraged to spy on each other; rats are rewarded”. Lee Kwan Yew, the benign autocrat is articulate but incoherent, is meddlesome and fiddles with people’s lives, is a cold and single-minded control freak and Singapore’s citizens take after him. China is dismissed in a few nasty lines – “Ugly and soulless, China represented the horror of answered prayers, a peasant’s greedy dream of development”. Well, one can only be glad Theroux’s countrymen are less dismissive of this giant. Japanese society confuses him – it is alienating, conformist, “Manga and the graphic novel seemed to represent a dumb, defiant anti-intellectualism”, there is something perverse about the Japanese obsession with school girls and the whole of Japanese culture is ‘sculpted and controlled’.

Theroux’s last leg on the trans-Siberian Express is the culmination of all that is good in his book. In a coming together of literature and travel, he takes us on a journey redolent with Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov. And when he concludes his Russian leg by saying that 33 years later, Russia was essentially the same – “a pretentious empire with a cruel government that was helpless without secret police”, one can hardly disagree.

There are many parts of the book that get your back up – especially when he describes places you know intimately, India and Singapore and Sri Lanka and Thailand. At times he comes across as a Westerner sneering at Eastern progress, almost as if he misses the idyllic village that the East once was, almost as if he is romanticizing poverty. Theroux is provocative, confrontational and many a time offensive. But he is hardly ever uninteresting. And even at places where you most disagree with him, you have to admit that there could be a kernel of truth in his point of view.