Personally, I prefer to stay longer in one destination. I feel as though I can get firmly entrenched in the culture, language, food etc. whereas with quick, whirlwind tours I’m just another tourist. Yet, Paul Theroux has me questioning this approach after reading Ghost Train to the Eastern Star.
In Ghost Train, Theroux sets off to recreate his epic journey around Europe and Asia in 1973, which he recounted in his classic The Great Railway Bazaar. I do plan on reading Bazaar at some point, but I suppose I chose the newer version because I like reading modern accounts of countries so that I can see a.) Where I’d like to travel to and b.) To compare it to places were I’ve been.
In regards to the latter point, this journey took Theroux through Central Asia, specifically Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
I actually spent some time in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, and this is the first time I’ve ever read an account of the country in a travel memoir. Unfortunately, his account of Tashkent was virtually non-existent, and was only a blip on his radar compared to his time in neighboring Turkmenistan.
This is a pattern in the earlier parts of the book. He hops right along through Romania, Hungary, Uzbekistan and speeds all along Russia’s vast territory towards the end.
This is unlike Dark Star Safari, his memoir from Cairo to Cape Town, because this book encompasses a much more extensive itinerary. I do like the fact that the reader gets such a broad insight to a wide variety of countries everywhere from Istanbul to Singapore, but the book lacks depth at times. In Dark Star, the book is entirely focused on Africa. Theroux picks a few common themes, humanitarian aid being one, and observed the effects that aid had on each of the countries he visited.
It’s impossible to do that in Ghost Train.
When he does decide to go in-depth on a country, he tends to drone on at times. When he’s traveling through India, for example, he notes the effect outsourcing had on their country. It’s not an exciting subject, and can leave the reader ready to turn the page.
Making the Most of Fame
One benefit to reading a book by a well-established author, as opposed to a twenty something travel blogger, is that he has access to things, and people, few others do. One such person was Haruki Murakami.
Haruki Murakami is Japan’s most famous writer—one of the world’s too. His works of fiction are well… strange, but the writing is phenomenal, lucid and imaginative which is why he’s captivated such a large audience.
Murakami serves as Theroux’s personal guide in Tokyo for a day. He shows him all the quirks of Japanese culture, namely their obsession with certain sex fetishes.
The theme of sex plays a large role throughout the book too, whether inadvertently or not, which Theroux makes note of early on in Hungary,
…my theory that a county’s pornography offers the quickest insight into the culture and inner life of a nation, especially the male character…”
He explores the hookers and sex trade in Southeast Asia extensively as well (No, he doesn’t have sex with them).
A Great Deal to Learn
Paul Theroux has definitely cemented himself as one of my favorite writers. For one, if you’re an aspiring writer, there are few modern writers out there that can compete with him. His prose is absolutely fantastic, and there are certain paragraphs that are so well crafted they’re almost a piece of art.
That evening I sat on the rooftop veranda of the small, quiet Lady Hill Hotel, writing about my visit with Sir Arthur, my melancholy at seeing him so frail so vague, his mind rifting the town’s lights twinkled through the trees, the sky was full of stars; from this vantage I could see the lamps of the fishing boats in the harbor. The air was fragrant with night-blooming flowers.
I considered this one of the best evenings of my trip: the muted buzz of the small seaside town at night, the soft air, the perfume of the blossoms. No event, no drama, just contentment, as though I had set off from London and traveled for months to be here, at this moment, sitting under the full moon of the Sinhalese lunar New Year.
Secondly, his itineraries and adventures serve as good inspiration for the aspiring traveler. He also has a number of superb thoughts on travel. Here are a few of my favorites:
..luxury is the enemy of observation, a costly indulgence that induces such a good feeling that you notice nothing. Luxury spoils and infantilizes you and prevents you from knowing the world. That is its purpose, the reason why luxury cruises and great hotels are full of fatheads who, when they express an opinion, seem as though they are from another planet. It was also my experience that one of the worst aspects of travelling with wealthy people, apart from the fact that the rich never listen, is that they constantly groused about the high cost of living – indeed, the rich usually complained of being poor.”
“Travel writing is the lowest form of literary self-indulgence: dishonest complaining, creative mendacity, pointless heroics, and chronic posturing.”
“An aimless joy is a pure joy.”
“Luxury is the enemy of observation.”
“Travel is at its most rewarding when it ceases to be about reaching a destination and becomes indistinguishable from living your life.”
Looking over some other reviews of this book, there are a few things that continually came up:
- His self-indulgence
- Liberal attitudes
- An imbalance in which countries he focuses on and ignores
While I can acknowledge these ‘faults’, I didn’t find them to detract from the book—classic Theroux as usual.
Reading Theroux is truly a joy. You feel whisked off to faraway lands and get a tenured tour guide to show you the nuances of life in these places. A pleasure indeed.
Click here to get your copy of Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux on Amazon.