Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the tracks of 'The Great Railway Bazaar'
by Paul Theroux

Sigmund Freud suffered from a phobia of train travel that he called Reisefieber. Paul Theroux suffers from the opposite: a love of railways that is close to a compulsion. In 1973-74, Theroux traveled (mostly) by train from London to Tokyo via India and South-east Asia, before returning on the Trans-Siberian Express to his point of origin. That four-month journey was written up as "The Great Railway Bazaar" (1975), the book that made Theroux's reputation as a travel writer. Other train-track epics followed: "The Old Patagonian Express" (1979), down through Central and South America, and "Riding the Iron Rooster" (1988), back and forth through China not long before Tiananmen. And now he's back on the tracks.

Back on his own tracks, in fact, for in "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star," Theroux retraces the route he took in "The Great Railway Bazaar." The idea, as he explains at excessive length in the first chapter, is to audit the changes that have occurred in Europe and Asia since he first traversed them - and also to hunt the "specter" of his younger self. It's the kind of project that only a man secure in his own self-esteem could undertake: an auto-pilgrimage, a grand homme's homage to, well, himself. But then Theroux has never been overburdened by modesty. Although he has claimed that a prerequisite of traveling responsibly is avoiding arrogance, his previous travelogues have all been pungent with self-regard. "Ghost Train" is no different. The story is told over the course of 32 chapters and nearly 500 pages.

Each chapter corresponds to a segment of the overall voyage, and each involves at least one rail journey, many of them on night trains. In this way we trail Theroux trailing himself: train after train, city after city, country after country. A typical chapter consists of local-colorish place descriptions, cutaways to relevant historical background, encounters with various people (writers, prostitutes, businessmen, fellow travelers) and sundry riffs on pretty much anything that occurs to Theroux. ("Why," he contemplates, "is the motor-way culture drearier in Europe than anywhere in America?") These elements are grouted together with accounts of trains caught and meals eaten, the details of which readers may find of less interest than Theroux does. ("I ... ordered a half bottle of white Burgundy, salad and bouillabaisse marseillaise ... with croutons and rémoulade.") Theroux has long enjoyed a pugnacious relationship with other writers, and his bellicosity remains in evidence in "Ghost Train."

V.S. Naipaul is, as usual, upbraided for being boastful, younger travel writers are dismissed as "opportunistic punks" and Prince Charles is rapped over the knuckles for his diary's "breezy generalizations" about travel. Yet throughout this book, Theroux is regularly boastful, opportunistic - and breezily generalizing. Arriving in Turkey, he recalls nostalgically how "on my first trip I had summarized Turkey as a peasant economy with colorful ruins." Georgia, he concludes within days of arriving, is "a supine and beleaguered country of people narcissistic about their differences." China apparently "exists in its present form because the Chinese want money."

In the desert of Turkmenistan, his eye is snagged by a pretty woman: "Her beauty in this crusted wasteland was like a metaphor for Turkmenistan: lovely people, awful place." Most of these generalizations are intellectually intolerable, some are banalities masquerading as profundities and a few just fail to make sense: "A train station is a little democracy in which everyone has a right to exist on the presumption that he or she might be waiting for a train."

The book's extraordinary closing paragraph consists of a series of generalizations laid end to end, in a crescendo of blaring sententiousness: "Most people on earth are poor. Most places are blighted and nothing will stop the blight getting worse. Travel gives you glimpses of the past and the future. ... No one on earth is well governed. ... The going is still good."