Saturday, January 09, 2010

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (A Book Review)

It's cold up here this evening. As I spent today waiting for my daughter's choir practice, I had time to finish this book review. Enjoy.
Paul Theroux, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: (Boston: Mariner Books, 2008), 492 pages

Favorite Quote: “Travel is at its most rewarding when it ceases to be about reaching your destination and becomes indistinguishable from living your life.” (367)

The mature Paul Theroux, now in his 60s, seems bent on discovering how the world has changed in his life as he revisits the travels of his past. In the mid-1970s, at the age of thirty-three, Theroux set off on a train trip that took him from his home at the time in London, through Europe to Turkey, across Persia and India, through Southeast Asia and Japan and finally to Europe across the Trans-Siberian Railway. That book, The Great Railway Bazaar established Theroux as a travel writer and was the first of his books that I read, some twenty years ago. Early in the new millennium, Theroux traveled overland through Africa, revisiting many of the places he‘d lived as a Peace Corp volunteer and later a college professor in Uganda. Afterwards, he published Dark Star Safari, which recounts his journeys in after a thirty-year absence. In a similar vein, Theroux next set out to cover the same tracks he’d written about in The Great Railway Bazaar. Although he no longer lives in London, he flies to the city to begin in his journey. His first notice of the difference in his journey is in the crossing of the English Channel. In 1973, he crossed the channel on a ferry boat. Today, he boards the train in London and is whisked through a tunnel, under the English Channel, to France and soon is in Paris. Although this train was ultra-modern, that would not always be his experience in his travels.

Theroux’s journey takes him through poverty-stricken Eastern Europe to Turkey. In 1973, he traveled from Turkey through Iran and on into Pakistan and India. This trip, he‘s unable to obtain a visa for Iran and is nervous about the political troubles in Afghanistan and Pakistan, so he heads northwest and travels through many of the former Soviet states that are now countries. Starting in Georgia, he makes his way to Turkmenistan and through Uzbekistan and then flies to Amritsar in India. After visiting the Sikh holy sites, he takes the train south through the subcontinent, checking out the development of the nation as well as religious sites. He heads next Sri Lanka, an island nation devastated by Civil War. The train hugs the southern coastline through villages rebuilt after the deadly tsunami of 2005. 1500 people drown on the train that fateful morning when the wall of water swept the train from its tracks. Next, he flies to Myanmar and travels by train from Rangoon to Mandalay and on to a small resort in the mountains which he’d popularized in this earlier book. After Myanmar, he flies to Bangkok and takes the train first north Laos and then south to Singapore. He then heads back to Bangkok and travels through Cambodia and then on a bus to Saigon where the travels north by train through Vietnam, stopping at Hue and Hanoi and then on into China, where he flies to Tokyo. He travels throughout Japan on train and then flies to Vladivostok, where he picks up the Trans-Siberian Railroad back to Europe.

“I avoided making friends with politically powerful people, Theroux said, “because the nearer you are to such people, the more morally blind you become.” (63) That said, Theroux meets briefly with Prince Charles when in India. (174-175) However, this appears to be an exception. Theroux generally avoid government connections, preferring to meet local people or authors. The book is filled with political observations. In Turkmenistan, a rich nation ruled at the time he was there by Niyazov, a madman, Theroux suggested the country be called Loonistan and considered it an example of what happens when political power, money and mental illness are combined. Niyazov had banned beards, gold teeth and ballets. But he had money that came from gas wells. Speaking to an American there, he was told that the capital Ashgabat was you’d get if you mixed Las Vegas and Pyongyang together in a blender (105). Niyazov published his own book which “contains more exclamation marks that a get-rich-quick ad..” (107) Niyazov promised his reader that if they read it three times, they would go to heaven (a promise Theroux suggested wasn’t enough to get him to read it two more times). In Myanmar, the only country where he “met nothing but generosity and kindness,” the people were the “most ill-treated, worst-governed, belittled, and persecuted of any people I met.” (267)

In Singapore, a country where he had once taught in a university, was the most changed of the places he’d visited. He spoke of it being filled with cameras and snitches, where there was little privacy, but great loneliness because “Singaporeans are encouraged to spy on each other; the rats are rewarded.” (319). Although the place was “safe and clean,” Theroux found it to be a city-state of “potting kittenish women and frowning nerdish men.” (324) “Because they can’t criticize the government,“ Theroux suggests, “they criticize each other or pick on foreigners.” (324). Theroux has harsh criticism for Lee, Singapore’s puritan leader, a man who praised the Chinese handling of the1989 Tiananmen Square protests and who bans chewing gum. Yet, even in this strict society, Theroux found the dark underside that included, to his horror, underage prostitutes being smuggled in from other Asian countries. In fairness to Singapore, Theroux may have an ax to grind as his teaching contract was not renewed due to political reasons and he found himself criticized in the local media while there.

Interestingly, Theroux made his travels at the height of the American engagement in Iraq. He found, in his 28,000 mile journey, only two people who supported the US invasion: a man in Baku who also wanted the US to also invade Iran and a man in India who thought it the only way to deal with Islam. (204)

As he often does with his travels, Theroux connects with many well known writers. In Turkey, he meets with Orham Pamuk, (My Name is Red), and ponders the danger authors often face in other parts of the world… From another Turkey author, Elif Shafak, he learns why that the country’s storytelling is so strong because of their nomad background. In Sri Lanka, he meets with Arthur C. Clarke (Sir Authur), just before the science fiction writer’s death. He was shown around Tokyo by Haruki Murakami, a Japanese author. Even where there were no authors, Theroux often “dialogued” with writers about the area in which he was traveling, such as he did with the Russian authors who traveled through the city of Perm (the site of an infamous Gulag and a gateway to Siberia).

Theroux isn‘t overly fond of religion, but in his travels, he keeps coming into contact with Zoroastrianism and, as he critiques other faiths, seems to have a soft-spot for the ancient Persian religion. “The humane aspects of Zoroastrianism probably accounted for its diminution as a faith, if not its failure,” Theroux writes. “A religion needs harshness and hokum to succeed, and all Zarathustra taught was understanding the earthly elements, the turn of the year, the one God. And three simple rules to live by: good thoughts, good works, good deeds. Also a belief in the purifying nature of fire, which was central to the faith and a symbol of the Almighty.” (94) Theroux is also critical of big cities, although he did find Istanbul as a “city with a soul,” one he could live in. (42). Arriving in Tokyo, he notes again his hatred for big cities, noting that he dislikes them “probably for the same reason many city people hate wilderness (which I love), because I find them vertiginous, threatening, monochromatic, isolating, exhausting, germ-laden, bristling with busy shadows and ambiguous odors.” (400)

Theroux often explores the underside of life. He seems to enjoy talking with and learning from prostitutes, seeking their insights into a society. Much of the area he travels is known for sex tourism and he shows how such an industry exploits those trapped in its web. As he travels in South East Asia, he also spends time exploring our country’s involvement there. He finds the Vietnamese people forgiving, but he’s outraged in Cambodia that our country turned its back on the horrors of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, even indirectly supporting Cambodia when Vietnam invaded in the late 70s to put an end to the horrors of the killing fields.

I've read six books by Theroux, five of which are travel journals. This is also my favorite of his books as it seems he’s mellowed and is more compassionate. He often goes to bed early as opposed to spending nights out drinking. He helps a man in Mandalay and tells the story of another American traveler who buys a boy in Cambodia a motorbike to help him raise money to go to college. He seems obviously moved by the plight of young women caught in the sex trade. Yet, Theroux narcissism comes out such as when he discussed with an American backpacker the book she’s reading (one of his!). Although I’m sure such encounters happen, they get a bit old as I can recall (off the top of my head) other such encounters in Dark Star Safari and Riding the Iron Rooster. That said, I still recommend the book.


  1. Oooh, speaking of books, have you read Bill Bryson's, "A Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America?"

    While I will definitely debate the "small town" part of that (he went to NYC... when the first 250 pages don't touch on "towns" smaller than Tuscaloosa and Savannah, I don't consider the book to be about "small town" America - at least not the small town America that I know), I enjoyed it. He gets a little snarky at times, but also makes fun of himself a lot. It's 20 years old, which shocked me, but it's a good read.

    I especially think you'd like part two, when he goes West to travel the great outdoors :)

  2. Travel journals are always interesting. They make you feel like following the same route as the author and visit the same places. I did it once with "Journey to la Alcarria", one of the most famous books by the Spanish Nobel Prize Camilo José Cela, who trekked to a region in central Spain and found amazing people and villages there.

    I hope you enjoyed the choir practice session!

  3. Thanks for the review. I have one of his books already on my shelf thanks to an earlier review but I'm going to have to add more and read that first one soon.

  4. I've read his previous offerings, but not this one. I must put it on the list.

    BTW, the quote at the beginning of your review is so spot-on. I couldn't agree more.


  5. Sage
    Thanks for the review, I like travel-logs and one day may get around to his; for now I'm delighted with your reviews. Hey TC I love Bill Bryson's books, I have three or four of them and have found each one a delight!

  6. TC, I read that a number of years ago--before I was blogging so no reviews. I like his work, he's pretty funny but not much of an outsdoorsman.

    Leni, thanks for the suggestion about Cela, I'll look him up. Travel writing is one of my favorite--both serious writings like Theroux and the humorous like Bryson. I enjoyed your post today on the Spanish Civil War and recommend folks reading this to check it out.

    Ed, wonder if I could get Theroux to pay me a commission (I doubt it, he thought it was funny seeing a pirated copy of one of his books
    in Cambodia.

    Randall, I too find that quote meaningful. Have you read his fiction?

    Sleepyhead, it was recently mentioned to me that there are many students probably grateful for my book reviews and then they went on to say that it was probably good that I was finally writing book reviews as I read many of them in college in order not to have to read entire books!

  7. Quite an intriguing, if not often dangerous journey, Sage!

  8. I'd much rather connect with writers than befriend politically powerful people...I totally get that.

    Btw, I agree with your favorite's all about the journey!

    Thanks for the review, amigo! Sounds like an interesting read.

    PS - Keep warm!!

  9. Kenju, the title is intriguing, but the cover photo is absolutely beautiful and I'd brought the book for that alone.

    Michael, Dangerous yes, but it's interesting that he did stay out of Pakistan for that reason (he was traveling a few months after Daniel Pearl's (I think that was his name) murder

    Ily, I get it, too. I'm staying warm and enjoying the snow.

  10. This review makes me want to take a year off work, read, write, and travel.

  11. Very good review... you could do this for a living. Maybe you already do! Of course, making such journeys ourselves would probably be more in order :)

  12. Thank you very much, Sage. It's a collection of some stories i heard from my grannies when i was a kid, about the last days of the war in Barcelona. I'm very glad that you liked it!

    Take care.

  13. Great review as always. I loved this
    Theroux narcissism comes out
    I like his sister Phyllis a lot

  14. I really like the quote you've pulled as your favorite from the book.