Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

The photo on the jacket of The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia, Paul Theroux’s 1975 account of a 28,000-mile odyssey through Eastern Europe, the Far East, Indonesia, India, and the Middle East, is a perfect catalog of antediluvian fashion. Sideburns to the jawline, paisley tie, lapels that could carry a two-seater aloft. Now, more than 30 years later, his re-creation of the journey in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star pictures a polo-shirted elder, with much smaller glasses. How times change. And how they do not.

That is his point, this writer of 41 (count ’em!) previous books. The population of India may have doubled in the intervening years — how’s that for change? — but plenty of regional differences remain even on this globalized globe. We can be grateful to the man, for instance, for visiting Romania, so we don’t have to. (Bucharest is “a city of sullen, desperate vice.”)

This trip, though, is not only about seeing what’s up in the world these days. It’s about seeing what’s up with Paul Theroux as he makes an emblematic trip into the past — the one stored in a middle-aged memory — at the same time he makes one into the world of today.

Along the way, Theroux unwraps the secret of nonfiction writers: They lie. Well, not lie, exactly; they reframe. If the picture doesn’t look good with certain details in it, out they go. Thus he dispatches a notion retailed in the earlier book, that his journey to the unknown was undertaken with adventuresome spirit and devil-take-the-hindmost high hopes: “he first trip had not gone as planned…. I was homesick the whole way — four and a half months of it…my first melancholy experience of the traveler’s long lonely evenings.” One never suspects. The people he met back then on the Direct-Orient Express — sometimes in close quarters indeed, literally on top of one another — were rendered with perfect realism. And that is to say, not realistically at all. Details as ideal as the Japanese man who asks if Theroux wants to visit a “tzu,” one with “enemas in cages,? tend to be made, not born. The author is, after all, a novelist too.

Both books spill forth a wealth of aphoristic appreciation: Venice, given its surroundings, is “like a drawing room in a gas station”; Sikhs worshiping at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, are “swallowing grace and dystentery in the same mouthful.”

The new book is, perhaps necessarily, a much darker affair than the old. (He undertook the journey looking for what 19th-century traveler Henry Morton Stanley found upon returning to Africa ten years after his first visit: “a different place, with ominous changes, and a new book.”) This is because part of the territory explored is that of memory, and the act of exploration a return to places associated with a youth that is gone, a time of life that will never be recaptured. And the traveler possesses the knowledge that to try can be unwise: “The decision to return to an early scene in your life is dangerous but irresistible…it is like meeting an old lover years later and hardly recognizing the object of desire in this funny-looking and bruised old fruit.” One senses Theroux judging himself here as much as any object of desire long vanished; it lends new depths to his writing in Ghost Train, as well as a feeling of sad detachment.

At the same time, he discovers joy in revisiting the past, but with fresh eyes, and the chance to right old wrongs. Of Istanbul, a city he thinks so beautiful it is “heart-stopping” (and, he points out, he finds “most cities nasty”), he realizes that “I had been too young and hurried to appreciate its virtues on my first visit.” While there, he dines with Orhan Pamuk, and although it is ostensibly fascinating to sit in on a meal with Turkey’s most illustrious writer, Theroux never quite makes this brush with celebrity as engaging as what he witnesses through the blurred lens of the train window, the miserable poverty along the tracks to Mandalay, the grace and colors of Rajasthan.

One afternoon in Tblisi he eats at the House of Charity and that night attends an evening premiere of Giselle. It is that kind of book, he that kind of well-connected gentleman.

Wherever he goes, though, he is followed by himself, the ghost of the young man who took this trip in a different time. He remarks often on the “invisibility” of the older man (and here I thought this kind of unwilling disappearance was just a rueful punishment for females who dared to age!).

Upon arriving in Rangoon, he writes wistfully,

If a place, after decades, is the same, or worse than before, it is almost shaming to behold. Like a prayer you regret has been answered, it exists as a mirror image of yourself, the traveler, who has to admit: I’m the same too, but aged — wearier, frailer, fractured, abused, weaker, shabbier, spookier.

Yet some things just could not have been foreseen from 1975: there are no ghosts in the Mumbai of today, just the disembodied voices of technology’s outsourced spirits. Theroux visits Tata Consultancy Services, a call center for an unnamed American retailer. “If you have a problem with your electric drill, we will sort it out,” says a representative of the company. In hundreds of cubicles sit headphoned employees, ready to take your call. Overhead hangs a banner declaiming, What can I do to resolve your problem today?

If only they could.

In fact, as we see in the mirror Theroux holds up, the world is filled with irresolvable problems. And the more there are in a place, apparently, the more prostitution and pornography there is too. (In Vladivostok, Theroux everywhere sees “the girlie shows that catered to sailors, and the piles of Russian tit-and-bum magazines that were sold by shivering old ladies in ragged overcoats all over town.” One sells what will be bought in such a place, and that’s how you measure desperation — by how much sex is for sale.)

Although we pass by places that seem nothing but ravaged, hopeless, bleak, the author points out that there is always something more to be seen. So long as one stands at a different point of view — one that is older, perhaps wiser; but certainly, welcoming of the ghosts one accumulates as one goes on. In Siberia, where the book ends, he looks out at a village at a station stop. “In the past I had sneered at a half-buried place like this and wanted to move on.” Now, though, he suspects it is peaceful, self-sufficient, and a possibility for a life well-lived.

Well, if it weren’t so cold, maybe. And as long as there weren’t other places to go, eternally farther down the tracks.