PAUL THEROUX’S LATEST addition to his oeuvre, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, is a thoughtful, meditative book in the tradition of the very greatest travel writers, a gallery to which Theroux of course has long since signed his name. Now isn’t that a typical opening to a Theroux review?
But it’s true. This review which I’ve uncharacteristically missed my deadline on has been languishing on my desk for months and proven exceptionally hard to write for a couple of reasons. The first one being that I have a brand new baby on my hip, my first, my daughter, the light of my life to which I am drawn like a moth to the exclusion of all other sensation or labor. And the main one being the esteem I hold for Theroux, for his novels, for his language and reasoning and verbal luminosity. How can you write about Theroux without also attempting to reveal your own “glittering eyes”?
Serendip is a nation Theroux visits on the long railway journey he takes in this book, from Paris to Tokyo and back again, and I’ll use serendipity as an ersatz opening. I was in St. Augustine, Florida, a few weeks ago where I heard the pretender to the Poet Laureate of Florida throne, Peter Meinke, read his poem “The Night Train”. To quote his dark poem about a nighttime voyage in a tight compartment with strangers, “. . . this closed anonymous world inside a train/a nothing sort of place For God’s sake/get on with it: there’s nothing much at stake.”
I immediately thought of Theroux’s book. For all the recent commentary about how Ghost Train is a reflection of that famous travel book he wrote all those years ago, this book also is not. Ghost Train would exist even if Bazaar had never been written. Ghost Train is less a book about a voyage than it is about a place in life. A place in life when one realizes that life has mostly been lived, that the great acts have happened, that to look out on the world again from the window of a train is to see the world as it will be when you leave it, a world that is largely the same. To quote Meinke, “For God’s sake get on with it.” Neither Meinke nor Theroux are talking about the trip.
On the surface, this is a book about traveling on trains. About the people you are forced to rub elbows with, about the stations on the siding in the middle of nowhere with a single bulb burning in the darkness. Early in the book, Theroux writes,
This the closed compartment on the old train to Azerbaijan was something else. Travel means living among strangers, their characteristic stinks and sour perfumes, eating their food, listening to their dramas, enduring their opinions, often with no language in common, being always on the move towards an uncertain destination, creating an itinerary that is continuously shifting, sleeping alone, inventing the trip, cobbling together a set of habits in order to stay sane and rational, finding ways to fill the day and be enlightened, avoiding danger, keeping out of trouble, and, immersed in the autobiographical . . . writing everything down.
But this is also a book about living in the world, about keeping vast stretches of it familiar, even if they were only visited once thirty years ago, and only for a few hours. Theroux seems to be searching less for the vistas he passes on his trains and there are many, many of them than he is searching for something essential in himself: “What did it mean?”
One unfortunate aspect of Ghost Train is Theroux’s constant seeking out of prostitutes. Not to sleep with them, but to speak to them, to understand their existences, their motives, their pain. The first encounters are with Eastern European whores in Turkey, but they come again in Thailand and throughout Asia. Again and again, he offers them money “just to talk.” Invariably, and unsurprisingly, the prostitutes do not want to. The book’s most awful moment comes in Singapore, when Theroux is led to a cell full of prepubescent girls. He writes into his prose the requisite disgust. But the repetitious return to the topic begins to beg a question: “‘Don’t you know the answer to this already, Paul?” As a traveler in this book, Theroux likens himself to Odysseus, his wife at home to Penelope. But where there is smoke, there is fire. In this one flaw, it seems that Theroux hasn’t traveled very far at all.
Ghost Train is a writer’s book. Though he travels at that level we all did once: the cramped quarters, the midnight flashlights and demands for the passport, the smoking, the peasants drinking, Theroux also leaves the train and enters the literary heights that belong to him. Orhan Pamuk offers a tour of Istanbul, Pico Ayer plays a non-fluent host in Japan. And in by far the book’s strangest, funniest, most voyeuristic moment, Theroux spends a day with an aged and extraterrestrial Arthur C. Clarke at his home in Sri Lanka, which is a disturbing mausoleum to himself. Theroux also manages to shake hands with Prince Charles.
The changes Theroux notes in the world, the explosion of Bangalore, India, for example, due to call centers and IT, he always balances with observations of the constant beggars in the gutter. His conscience gets the best of him in Myanmar, where he gives enough money to the one “friend” he makes on the trip, Oo Ng Nawng, a helpful “tour guide” we all have met, to buy himself a rickshaw and substantially better his life. In Singapore, Theroux is accosted by an unfriendly media in the city-state he one called home, and in Turkmenistan, he offers a truly careful examination of a nation wholly in the grip of an insane dictator.
In all the things he is supposed to do in this book: offer us historical contexts, paint the color of the landscapes, record the sounds of the languages, introduce us to individuals, Theroux lives up to his name.
But what is most worthy about this book is that which was clearly intentional: Theroux’s portrait of himself. Ghost Train is a startling trip, a trip to make any traveler jealous. But it is also a voyage into Paul Theroux’s stage in life. While I can easily say the book is necessary reading, as a youngish man who has traveled widely and begun to note with fear the passage of time, what I wish most is that I could also say Ghost Train is happy. It’s not.
Theroux will always be a Peace Corps writer; whether the wider world knows that or not, we always will. It’s a precise language we speak, a precise way we judge one another. What is so special about Theroux is that while most of us return home from those strange corners of the world where we became ourselves to resume our mostly anonymous lives here, Theroux has long been what we wish to be, the good man on the stage. Does he use it still to teach people how to wash their hands, splash bleach into their wells, crap in latrines, roll on condoms, be better than they are, even when he knows it’s ridiculous? Yes. A bit more acerbically than most of us, but yes. To read Ghost Train is to read a story of our own.
“Most of the world is worsening,” Theroux writes late in the book, “shrinking to a ball of bungled desolation. Only the old can really see how gracelessly the world is aging and all that we have lost. Politicians are always inferior to their citizens. No one on earth is well governed. Is there hope?”
“Yes,” he simply concludes.
How dare you, Paul? How dare you?
Tony D’Souza novels are Whiteman and The Konkans. He’s contributed fiction and essays to The New Yorker, Playboy, Esquire, Outside, Salon, and is a 2008 Guggenheim fellow. He lives in Sarasota with his wife and infant daughter.