Paul Theroux revisits Asia

Ghost Train To The Eastern Star by Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux has written an immensely readable sequel to The Great Railway Bazaar, repeating that railway journey from Europe to Asia and back which earned him fame and fortune more than 30 years ago. It is bursting with people and places, rich in indelible portraits. I can’t forget the Korean monk Theroux meets in Myanmar who carries all his possessions in a little cloth bag and the English-speaking urchins in Amritsar, India, who can’t read or write.

There is drama too. A government agent sneaks into a talk by Theroux at the US embassy in Turkmenistan and photographs a dissident before an American  official seizes the film and turns the agent out of the building. But the agent files a report and Theroux has to leave the country in a hurry as a suspected troublemaker.

Not everyone will be pleased with Theroux’s accounts of the countries he revisits. He describes Bangalore, India’s IT capital, as a high-tech sweatshop. Singapore, in his account, is rigid with rules and taboos, a virtual one-party state with licensed brothels. Myanmar is ruled by fear, Sri Lanka drained by insurgency, Cambodia yet to recover from the Khmer Rouge nightmare, China dispatched in a couple of paragraphs as ugly beyond words, the Central Asian republics — formerly part of the Soviet Union – are primitive, polar opposites of Western democracies.

Only Vietnam gets a glowing treatment. Even its prostitutes are more colourful –- biker chicks in Hanoi screech to a halt in the writer’s path and ask: “You want boom boom?” And there is Japan –- kinky, high-tech, like no other country in the world but rich, peaceful, stable –- where, Theroux claims, the police actually prefer organised crime to the unorganised variety because it is organised. Japan certainly seems like paradise compared with Siberia, where Theroux travels next, taking the dirty, unkempt Trans-Siberian Express with Russians who spend days and nights making the long journey in a drunken haze.

A writer’s journey

But Ghost Train is not just a travelogue. It’s also a writer’s journey –- Theroux is revisiting old places to connect with his past and see how he himself has changed.

“Memory is a ghost train too”, he writes and explains why he made the journey:

“Older people are perceived as cynics and misanthropes –- but no, they are simply people who have at last heard the still, sad music of humanity played by an inferior rock band howling for fame. Going back and retracing my footsteps… would be for me a way of seeing who I was, where I went, and what subsequently happened to the places I had seen.”

He reflects on the price of his literary success. The Great Railway Bazaar brought him success -– at the expense of his first marriage. He returned to London at the end of that long journey in the 1970s to find his wife was having an affair. He recalls his emotional torment as he wrote that book.

“I concealed my domestic turmoil. I made the book jolly, and like many jolly books it was written in an agony of suffering, with the regret that in taking that trip I had lost what I valued most: my children, my wife, my happy household.”

Memories rush back from the moment he begins his journey in London:

“…here I was a few minutes out of Waterloo, clattering across the shiny rain-drenched Junction, thinking I had been here before. On the line through south London, my haunted face at the window, my former life as a Londoner began to pass before my eyes.”

Theroux on other writers

This is a writer’s book, and as Theroux continues his journey, he meets other writers. This is what makes the book special.

He meets the Turkish Nobel Prize winner, Orhan Pamuk, in Istanbul. They discuss Borges. Pamuk is hyperactive, hyper-intelligent, a cruel mimic and a rebel who has had brushes with the authorities.

Theroux praises the writer Catherine Lim when he writes about Singapore.

In Sri Lanka, he meets Arthur C Clarke and draws a memorable portrait of the old man – egoistic, insatiably curious, a Renaissance man who had known almost everyone worth knowing — who died in March this year.

He travels around Tokyo with Haruki Murakami.

In Kyoto, he meets up with Pico Iyer. Their conversations by far are the most interesting to me because they discuss other British and American writers. Jan Morris has had an amazing life, they say about my favourite travel writer. Theroux still holds a grudge against VS Naipaul about whom he wrote the cruel In Sir Vidia’s Shadow.

Ghost Train is a revealing book. Theroux uninhibitedly rakes up old scars. That doesn’t make him look bad at all for he is a very good writer and here he is writing at the top of his form.

Get hold of this book and enjoy it while you can. The internet, which encourages speed reading and instant publishing, does not foster this kind of writing.

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