Acclaimed travel writer and novelist Theroux hasn't lost his affection for trains, but his view of the scenery outside has darkened in his latest odyssey. Reprising the itinerary of his 1973 The Great Railway Bazaar(with a detour around Iran and Afghanistan into the Central Asian republics), Theroux takes a contrarian stance toward the transformation of Asia over the intervening decades. The persistence of familiar, authentic, rural decrepitude usually heartens him, while the teeming modernity of great cities-the computer-and-oxcart madhouses of Mumbai and Bangalore, the neurotic orderliness of Singapore, the soullessness of Tokyo-appalls. The book is often an elegy for fixity in a globalizing age when everyone is a traveler anxious to get to America and "the world is deteriorating and shrinking to a ball of bungled desolation." Fortunately, Theroux is too rapt an observer of his surroundings and himself to wallow long in reaction or nostalgia; readers will find his usual wonderfully evocative landscapes and piquant character sketches (and, everywhere, prostitutes soliciting him-most stylishly in Hanoi, where they ride up on motorcycles crying, "You come! Boom-boom!"). No matter where his journey takes him, Theroux always sends back dazzling post cards. (Aug.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Thirty-three years after taking the trek he recounted in The Great Railway Bazaar, Theroux hits the rails again, duplicating as best he can that earlier trip through Eastern Europe, central Asia, India, Southeast Asia, Japan, and Siberia. His new memoir abounds with comparisons to that first trip, geographically, politically, and personally. Theroux recalls how one critique of The Great Railway Bazaar described it as "caustic"; his descriptions here may not be precisely that, but his tone can be off-putting, e.g., there's a touch of misogyny in his treatment of some of the women he encounters. He also adopts a traveler-not-tourist tone, which some readers may find refreshing but others may simply see as smug. In conjunction with this outlook, he tends to seek out the seedier sides of his locales in order to find what he believes is the "real" place. These "real" places include everything from porn shops to sex traffickers. In short, this is not light reading. Nevertheless, Theroux is an important American writer. Recommended for libraries where The Great Railway Bazaar has been popular. [See Prepub Alert, LJ4/15/08.]
Travel writer and novelist Theroux (The Elephanta Suite, 2007, etc.) offers an elegiac retracing of roads and railroads taken across the vastness of Eurasia. Rejoining his 1975 travelogue The Great Railway Bazaar, Theroux takes to the chemin de fer from London to Kyoto four decades older and, it seems, more inclined to the better things in life ("a woman in a blue uniform brought me a bottle of Les Jamelles Chardonnay Vin de Pays d'Oc 2004 . . . and then the lunch tray: terrine de poulet et de broccolis, chutney de tomates, the entree a fillet of lightly peppered salmon, with coup de chocolat for dessert"). He is a touch rueful and more than a touch reflective, viewing his metaphorically mirrored self in the sleeping-compartment window and thinking of marriages, friendships and youth lost. The meditative aspect soon yields to Theroux's testy, Kiplingesque impatience with the cultures east of Folkestone, to his allergy to the "Asiatic ambiguity" that lies before him. He is willing to debate such things with the people he meets, unafraid to argue the relative merits of Western civilization vis-a-vis Islam, to name just one topic of conversation. As with his previous books, Theroux is unafraid of roughing it in the interest of getting a story, and some of his new memoir's best moments find him stealing across snowy, remote borders, "like a specter, in a strange country at nightfall," only to have his strength and compass restored by a delicious bottle of wine or morsel. Theroux wanders to places that scarcely cross most other travel writers' minds, among them Vientiane ("a sleepy town on the banks of the muddy river, famous for its cheap beer") and Phnom Penh ("scruffy, rather beaten-up . .. like a scarred human face in which its violent past was evident"). He also keeps up a running argument with the books he reads along the way, to say nothing of his contemporaries (Chatwin never traveled alone, he harrumphs, and neither does bete noire Naipaul). Fans of Theroux will say that he hasn't lost his touch; the more critical will say that he breaks no new ground. Either way, worth looking into.
From the Publisher
“Follow Theroux wherever he goes; you’ll be surprised and enthralled…”
— Globe and Mail
“Brightly rendered and endlessly informative, it serves up one sharp, insightful anecdote or historical tidbit after another…”
— Seattle Times
“Brilliant. No one writes with Theroux’s head-on intensity and raptness…”
— Pico Iyer
Read an Excerpt
Long after I took the trip I wrote about in The Great Railway Bazaar I went on thinking how I’d gone overland, changing trains across Asia, improvising my trip, rubbing against the world. And reflecting on what I’d seen – the way the unrevisited past is always looping in your dreams. Memory is a ghost train too. Ages later, you still ponder the beautiful face you once glimpsed in a distant country. Or the sight of a noble tree, or a country road, or a happy table in a café, or some angry boys armed with rusty spears shrieking, “Run you life, dim-dim!” – or the sound of a train at night, striking that precise musical note of train whistles, a diminished third, into the darkness, as you lie in the train, moving through the world as travelers do, “inside the whale.”
Thirty-three years went by. I was then twice as old as the person who had ridden those trains, most of them pulled by steam locomotives, boiling across the hinterland of Turkey and India. I loved the symmetry in the time difference. Time passing had become something serious to me, embodied in the process of my growing old. As a young man I regarded the earth as a fixed and trustworthy thing that would see me into my old age; but older, I began to understand transformation as a natural law, something emotional in an undependable world that was visibly spoiled. It is only with age that you acquire the gift to evaluate decay, the epiphany of Wordsworth, the wisdom of wabi-sabi: nothing is perfect, nothing is complete, nothing lasts. . . .
Traveling into the darkness of a late-winter evening, knowing that I would be waking up in Vienna only to change trains, I felt that my trip had actually begun, that everything that had happened until now was merely a prelude. What intensified this feeling was the sight of the sodden, deep green meadows, the shadowy river, the bare trees, a chilly feeling of foreignness, and the sense that I had no clear idea where I was but only the knowledge that late tonight we would be passing through Strasbourg on the German border and tomorrow morning we’d be in Austria, and around noon in Budapest, where I’d catch another train. The rhythm of these clanging rails and the routine of changing trains would lead me into central Asia, since it was just a sequence of railway journeys from here to Tashkent in Uzbekistan.
A lovely feeling warmed me, the true laziness of the long-distance traveler. There was no other place I wished to be than right here in the corner seat, slightly tipsy from the wine and full of bouillabaisse, the rain lashing the window.
I did not know it then, of course, but I would be traveling through rain and wind all the way through Turkey, on the Black Sea coast, through Georgia, and as far as Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea, and would not be warm – would be wearing a woolly sweater and a thick jacket – until I was in the middle of Turkmenistan, among praying Turkmen, mortifying themselves and performing the dusty ritual of waterless ablutions, called tayammum, also on a train, but a dirty and loudly clattering one, in the Karakum Desert, where it never rained.