GHOST TRAIN TO THE EASTERN STAR Paul Theroux
Paul Theroux doesn’t think highly of travel writers. Their occupation is “one of the laziest ways on earth of passing the time…an elaborate bumming evasion.” They’re fond of “jumping to conclusions, and so most travel books are superfluous.” He’s even more scathing about those who retrace the footsteps of other writers: “opportunistic punks” indulging in a “glib debunking effort for a shallower, younger, impressionable writer”.
Having got that off his chest, he justifies his return to the terrain he wrote about in The Great Railway Bazaar. “Curiosity” and “dreams” are among his compelling reasons. And so, 33 years after he embarked on that expedition at the age of 33, Theroux boards the 12.09 to
The actions of politicians and warlords meant that returning to
Serendipity and the ability to not too take oneself too seriously, those essential companions of the interesting traveller, are largely absent here. Even though it’s clear he hasn’t planned every detail, most of his accounts have the same ring to them. He likes places that haven’t changed all that much, among them
Theroux, of course, has many novels to his credit, and seeks out other writers too. He dines with Orhan Pamuk in enchanting Istanbul, modestly confessing that “he reminded me of myself"; finds Elif Shafak “so beautiful [that] writing seemed irrelevant”; visits an absent-minded Arthur C. Clarke in Colombo; strolls around Tokyo and visits a porn emporium with Haruki Murakami; and gossips about writing, the strangeness of Japan and V.S. Naipaul with Pico Iyer in Kyoto and Nara.
Towards the end, he experiences an epiphany. “What’s the big difference between then and now? …The greatest difference was in me”. In contrast to his younger self, the 66-year-old Theroux is more comfortable in his own skin, at ease with writing and traveling, with a home he looks forward to returning to. Alas, his conclusion is that the world is shrinking into “a ball of bungled desolation” and if there is hope, it is only to be found in the kindness of strangers. They say travel broadens the mind; perhaps too much travel simply makes it tetchy.