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.

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Paul Theroux on Singaporeans and Indians

“Singapore is an example of a place where people are self-conscious in the presence of foreigners,” says Paul Theroux,” because they feel that you’re going to criticise them for having accommodated themselves to their government and this way of living.”

“It’s like a gated community,” he adds. “You go in definitely feeling (a) that you don’t belong there, (b) that they’re not particularly interested in your staying there, and (c) that they’re very, very defensive. They feel they have to explain why they’ve settled for Singapore. And do you know, the sex trade there is booming, but their boast is, ‘These aren’t Singapore girls . . . they’re Burmese, they’re Vietnamese, they’re Filipina . . . but not us!'” 

Singapore still rankles in Theroux’s memory, from his remarks to the Wall Street Journal.

But he has good things to say about Indians. “I love traveling in India,” he says, “because Indians are approachable. If I were traveling in the U.S. and asked people some of the questions I ask in India, I’d get a very dusty answer. People would say ‘Who are you?’ ‘You work for the government?’ When you’re in India, you can ask, ‘Where do you live, what do you do, how much do you earn, how many children do you have?’ It’s the accessible poor. You can do that in Southeast Asia, too.”

But apparently not in rich little Singapore.

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