Monday, November 10, 2008

Ghost Train To The Evening Star by Paul Theroux

Category: Travel - Asia; Biography & Autobiography - Personal Memoirs; History

Hardcover, 512 pages

Publisher: McClelland & Stewart/ Random House

Pub Date:
September 9, 2008


Thirty-three years ago noted travel writer Paul Theroux made a looping journey by train from London through Central Asia to Japan and all the way back again. This epic journey was the subject of his best-selling book "The Great Railway Bazaar". In 2006 he decided to retrace his steps and the book inspired by his return journey is called "Ghost to The Eastern Star" .

So, the big question is, why did Paul Theroux undertake the same journey? Why didn't he go somewhere he's never been before? Well, for starters, Theroux is wary of other travel writers taking "his" trip and then going on to write a book with the likely title, "In The Footsteps of Paul Theroux"! Also, he thought it would be a good idea to see how globalization had changed the world in 33 years...and most of all, to find out if he had changed as a traveller.

One thing he found that hadn't changed was his love of travelling by train. Theroux was more than happy to travel in hard seat, second class carriages, share his space with stinky strangers, endure their opinions often with no language in common and even their food, knowing that, as he puts it,
"Luxury spoils and infantilizes you and prevents you from knowing the world."

If you pick up this book expecting it to detail tourist attractions,
museums, cultural to-do's, things to eat, places to see etc. you'll be disappointed. To travel with Theroux means to be treated to a cornucopia of thoughts, impressions, observations, judgments, conversations, opinions,reminisces, etc., many of which may not even be connected to the place in question. As jumbled as this may sound, Theroux is in fact a very entertaining and informed writer and you will welcome his observations, even if he is given to making sweeping generalizations, for instance, "Georgia" , he concludes within days of arriving, is "a supine and beleaguered country of people narcissistic about their differences." About China he says, "(China) exists in its present form because the Chinese want money.", but he seems to reserve most of his ire for the Singaporeans which he describes thus: "Singaporeans' personalities reflect that of the only leader most of them have ever known, and as a result are notably abrasive, abrupt, thin-skinned, unsmiling, rude,puranitical, bossy, selfish and unspiritual. Because they can't criticize the government, they criticize each other or pick on foreigners. And in this hanging and flogging society they openly spank their children..." pg 327

So, coming back to the premise for the book, did Theroux find a whole lot had changed?
I think it's fair to say that of all the places he travelled to, Burma had stayed virtually the same, that is to say, it hadn't made any progress in 33 years, if anything it seemed to have become worse... "It (Rangoon) looked pessimistic, unlucky and badly governed. It had no bounce. It was a city without visible ambition: no challenge, no defiance. Being youthful here wasn't an advantage, nor was strength any use; brains just made you unhappy and a target for the secret police..." pg 265

Cambodia, which he could not enter on his first time, remains traumatized by it's violent recent history..."Most Cambodians have a memory of the bad years; the hurt was apparent in their posture, in their voices, in their eyes."

Vietnam was the place he found had changed the most and seemed to have his utmost admiration (which is saying a lot because it takes quite a bit to impress Theroux).
In the '70's Vietnam was flattened by America, but they crawled out from the wreckage and rebuilt a very viable country without American aid. Infact, it has now become a capitalist paradise, trying to beat America at its own game. Best of all, none of the Vietnamese Theroux met seemed to hold a grudge against the Americans, even though they were put through incredibly forgiving nation/

Despite all the hype over the New India, he found little to celebrate. Cities like Bombay and Bangalore where the economic boom is happening have not evolved but been crudely transformed. Beyond the concentrated cores of wealth, Theroux saw
"the India of the hut, the cow-dung fire, the bean field, the buffalo, the ox cart, and the bicycle — of debt and drought and death." He also saw a people for whom rituals, religion, beliefs and superstitions form an intrinsic part of their fabric. India's link with her past and religion keeps her looking backwards, on the other hand, China has been transformed and he is of the opinion that it was able to modernize because it has severed its links with the past, which has cost it its soul and many traditions.

Theroux has an unflinching ability to explore and evoke a place's dark almost every place he goes to, he explores its porn shops... "A country's pornography," he writes, "offers the quickest insight into the culture and inner life of a nation, and especially the male character." However Theroux reserves his sharpest barbs for political institutions...from the killing fields of Cambodia to the abandoned camps of the Gulag, he unflinchingly describes the brutality that humans can visit upon one another in the name of ideology.

All in all, I would rate this book highly. Theroux is a fearless traveler and definitely not afraid to speak his mind, nor does he feel the need to toe the line of political correctness. He calls things as he sees them and I welcome such honesty in a traveler. Also, Theroux's writing is not so much about the sightseeing as it is about the people and conversations with them. There is an abundance of wonderful dialogue in this book along with some entertaining chats with other writers like, Orhan Pamuk, Pico Iyer, Murakami etc. There is a lot you will learn from reading this book despite it's rather melancholic conclusion:

"Most of the world is worsening, shrinking to a ball of desolation. Only the old can really see how gracelessly the world is ageing and all that we have lost. Politicians and policemen are always inferior to their citizens. No one on earth is well governed." But is there hope? Yes, because strangers usually help, ghosts can travel and the going is still good.

The reference to ghosts in the passage is how Theroux sees his traveller self. He says that at 67, he feels “invisible” while traveling..."Young people seem to look right through you, acting as if you're not there, as they board a train, bus, metro or plane. You are inessential, overlooked". Sure, this may be regrettable, but very useful to a travel writer because you can make observations and record experiences, all the time listening while remaining unseen.


Neetal said...

hi... hope all is well with you...

I've been thinking to get something as a reward for myself... If get somthing done in time... and I think I just found it... it seems like a good read... will try to get this one...


Booklogged said...

I would love to be a travel writer. Imagine getting paid for doing something you enjoy so much. While I'm dreaming I would like to be a food critic, too. Not one of the other, but both - travel and food. If only I could write worth a darn!

Hope your week is going well. I think of you often.

Prixie said...

he has my dream orofession ;p

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Neeku!

How are you doing? If you enjoy the travel genre you will value this book a lot...he has an especially big section on the New India...enjoy!

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Booklogged!

I can't think of too many people who write as well as you do. A traveling food writer sounds like you'd never have to work a day in your would be fun, fun, fun! Theroux has some really nice passages on will make you think.

I think of you so often too hasn't been the same since i started working....I find it much too difficult to read or visit blogs...sad. I'm just so thankful that you keep visiting.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Prixie!

Mine too! :)

karmic said...

Hiya buddy.. how's you? I am pretty much guaranteed that if there is a new post here, it will be entertaining, educative, informative and not to mention, sure to give me yet another book to my "Want to read" list, which btw grows ever so longer. :)
I loved this review, especially because you have managed to capture the essence of this book so well, for that is not easy. This is not a travel book I suppose in the classic sense, he captures so much more than just going to a place no?
And I think your review conveyed that very well. I liked the part where he talks of himself as being invisible due to his age. I take that with a grain of salt though, as in certain parts of the world being a white man always gets you noticed. But then the young can be a tad self absorbed no? And I don't paint with a broad brush, when I say that.
I do share his melancholic view of the world, as well as his take on India and China.
Ouch @ his observations about Singaporeans!
Do you think Theroux's being famous may have something to do with his being easy to be political incorrect? His name carries some weight and he can say stuff which might give lesser lights some pause?
Also is it Theroux's observation that Vietnam is trying to beat America at its own game? Or is it something you are inferring based on his observations? I wonder what the basis of that is? Just curious.
Again loved reading your thoughts about this book and am convinced, thanks to you, that I must read this wonderful book.

Nanditha Prabhu said...

would like to go for this book! thanks for the review!theroux really sounds interesting!

i felt so good to be back blog hopping.. was on a long haitus.... though i have not started blogging yet..... we have relocated back to india.. i guess it would take a while!

BookClover said...

I'd love to be a travel writer too. Having to travel the whole world and having to write about difficult!;-)))

How come I always enjoy your messages? Wish I could feel the same for the ones I write;-)

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Sanjay!

You are too kind,but thank you! The fact that this is not just a travel book is an excellent observation...Theroux is more about the people, their predicaments, aspirations, history etc. than he is about the sightseeing and other touristy things.

About Singaporeans, I know!!! I have visited the country several times and I haven't come away feeling like he did. I guess different strokes for different folks like they say.

It could well be that along with fame comes the power to proffer observations that could be provocative but somehow Theroux strikes me as a person who calls it as he sees it> I haven't read his earlier books but something tells me he was just as candid there as he is now.

No, that observation on Vietnam is all Theroux's...I believe he made that observation in an interview. I am guessing that he is talking about Vietnam's capitalism and how they are doing so well without any aid from the US.

I hope you will get to read this book...there is a lot to take in, so read it only when you have a little more time at your disposal.

Happy Sunday Sanjay!

Lotus Reads said...

@Nanditha ~ So you're back in India!!?? That's wonderful! Whereabouts? And thanks for coming back to bloggerland to let us know! Are you on FB yet?

Lotus Reads said...

@bookclover ~ Thanks for the lovely comment. A travel writer's job would be fun for sure, but I am not sure that like Theroux I would appreciate traveling everywhere by train and that too, second class! I think the time taken, the crowds, smells and discomfort would kill me! :)

Robin said...

What a nice review! I'm listening to his The Old Patagonian Express right now, and your description is perfect for that book, too! To travel with Theroux means to be treated to a cornucopia of thoughts, impressions, observations, judgments, conversations, opinions,reminisces, etc., many of which may not even be connected to the place in question.

Lotus Reads said...

Hello Robin!

Thank you for letting me know about "The Old Patagonian Express", I am definitely planning on reading it. I am not sure why I took so long to get to a Paul Theroux novel, I just kept putting him off. Anyway, I am really glad I finally got to sample some of his work. His writing is like a breath of fresh air and I think it's because of the straight-talking, no-nonsense approach he brings to his work. Another travel writer I am now wanting to read is Dervla Murphy...I'm sure you've read some of her books.

♥ Braja said...

Well, I could have saved Mr Theroux the trouble and let him know of the Indian Rail system and it's refusal to change a thing besides the linen for the past 26 yrs. It's the one great legacy of the British, and I think that was the last time it was cleaned...

Gentle Reader said...

Great review! This book sounds fantastic, and I've always wanted to read Theroux but haven't gotten around to him yet--now I'm motivated :)

Lotus Reads said...

@Braja ~ :) Yes, the cabins can be rather dirty no? Guess it's because they carry thousands upon thousands of people everyday! Love your blog btw, great sense of humor!

@GR ~ Hello! How are you? I love the travelogue genre and feel so bad that I took so long to discover Theroux...I can't wait to go pouring over his earlier books. I am told the one he wrote on Africa is probably his best one although some would say "The Great Railway Bazaar" is his masterpiece!

Hollydolly said...

Hello Anjali:

Absolutely cracking review of this book. Coincidentaly I am reading this at the moment. I am really enjoying it. I love his writing. Actually, Great Railway Bazaar is my fav.(read it two or three times) with his Africa a close second.

Take Care.

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Sylvia

I am so pleased to meet someone that has read "Great Railway Bazaar". How would you compare the two? How do you think Theroux has aged as a writer/traveller? After all he is thirty-three years older now. I'd love to read the GRB just to do a compare-contrast like you are doing! Will you be writing a review? I hope you will!

karmic said...

Lotus, Thank you for your response.
No, that observation on Vietnam is all Theroux's...I believe he made that observation in an interview. I am guessing that he is talking about Vietnam's capitalism and how they are doing so well without any aid from the US.

It is possible that Vietnam is just following the Chinese model? Economic "freedoms" as opposed to personal freedoms? Also US businesses will go to any source that offers cheap and stable labor.
While Theroux maybe right in his observation, I am not sure these factors did not play a role.

Bookfool said...

Hi Lotus!

I didn't realize you've finally done some posting. I love Theroux, but I'm really here to tell you about another animal book that might interest you (since you commented about Songha at my blog -- just in case you don't see my reply). It's called A Primate's Memory by Robert M. Sapolsky. I just got a copy at my local library sale and haven't yet read it, but for some reason I think it might appeal to you.

That photo book in your previous post looks absolutely awesome. Hope you're doing well!!!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Sanjay!

You said:

"It is possible that Vietnam is just following the Chinese model? Economic "freedoms" as opposed to personal freedoms?"

Interesting thought you put out there. Perhaps they are, but, truthfully I haven't heard any horror stories coming out of Vietnam like you hear with the Chinese. We would have to have more details about their economy and the state of their people, especially the village populations before we are able to conclude just how healthy and free their economy is, I suppose. As always, lovely to have your thoughts!

Lotus Reads said...

Hello Bookfool!

Yes! I read "A Primate's Memory" but this was long,long ago (perhaps when I was studying for my genetics exam), but I definitely think it's time for a revisit and I thank you for the reminder!

Thank you also for stopping by...I love it when you do!

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