If you want to write meaningful travel literature, you’ve got to immerse yourself in everything that’s been published in the genre. In addition to reading broadly, I’ve made it a habit to read deeply of specific writers whose work truly resonates with me. I first read everything they’ve ever published. Next, I read their collected letters and journals. After that comes biographies, and finally, critical writings about the author’s work.
I’ve read everything published by Paul Theroux — not just his brilliant travel books, but also his much larger catalog of fiction. For those who haven’t read him, it gives me great pleasure to introduce you to my favourite travel writer. For those who have, please read on for a review of his most recent book of travel lit.
The publication of a new book by Paul Theroux is always a bit of an event for serious travelers, whether armchair or active. In his latest work, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Theroux sets out to retrace the route of his groundbreaking first travel book, thirty years later. It is a journey that finds him absolutely at the top of his form.
Already an established novelist, Theroux injected new life into the travel genre in 1975 when he published The Great Railway Bazaar. The story of his mammoth train journey from Britain through Europe to India and Sri Lanka, across Southeast Asia, up Japan, and full circle back to England on the Trans-Siberian Express became an immediate best seller and catapulted the author into the literary big leagues.
That first book was pivotal because it introduced extensive dialogue to a genre that had always tended towards the personal diary, pontification, and self-aggrandizement. Theroux’s gift for allowing strange local characters to reveal a place in their own words, coupled with a keen eye for the telling observation, has made him arguably our greatest living travel writer.
“Writing about travel has become a way of making sense of my life,” Theroux says in the opening chapter, “the nearest I will come to autobiography.” That sense comes across most clearly in this new work. The Theroux of Railway Bazaar was somewhat lost: nearly out of money, a novelist struggling for ideas. He set out on that first journey in 1973 with the vague notion of finding something to write about. And though we only read about it now, three decades later, he was also struggling with desperate loneliness, the constant ache of homesickness, and a deeply troubled marriage. The writer who takes this new journey is a changed man: the highly regarded author of dozens of acclaimed novels and travel books, wealthy, respected, and happily married. He is more relaxed, introspective, open, and with nothing to prove. As the journey unfolds Theroux looks back to confront that earlier self, to relive what he was and to take comfort in what he has become.
The issue at the heart of the book is one I’ve often struggled with: whether to return to a place where you had experiences which fundamentally altered the course of your life.
“The decision to return to any early scene in your life is dangerous but irresistible,” Theroux writes, “not as a search for lost time but for the grotesquerie of what happened since. In most cases it is like meeting an old lover years later and hardly recognizing the object of desire in this funny-looking and bruised old fruit.”
Will revisiting these places and seeing the inevitable changes alter your precious memory of them? Will sadness and nostalgia for what has been lost come to replace what you had there? If so, are those memories better left safely untouched, cherished in the past rather than revised by the present?
In the end, Theroux finds his joyful reunion — one particular episode in Burma was especially moving, a meeting with a family who remembered him and who had waited patiently for his return — and he finds a sense of peace with his past.[Note: I met that family when I was traveling in Burma back in 2002. When I told them I’d searched out their hotel because Theroux had written about it in Railway Bazaar, they asked if I could give them his phone number. They were always hoping he would return. I was glad to read that he did.]
Readers of The Great Railway Bazaar will be pleased to note that Ghost Train to the Eastern Star also covers new ground. Due to war in Afghanistan and an inability to secure a visa for Iran, Theroux was forced to reroute through the Caucasus nations of Georgia and Azerbaijan, and the Central Asian republics of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, all of which he was visiting for the first time. As he travels through these poverty stricken offshoots of the former USSR, we are reminded of his scrupulous honesty, his firm belief that the bleaker aspects of a country cannot be ignored — as they have been by so many writers of the “isn’t it lovely here” persuasion. Theroux has always sought to produce a balanced view in his travel writing, and while that may not fuel everyone’s ideal dream, I believe that it cuts much closer to the honest reality of the experience.
Fans of Theroux’s work will find all his strengths on display in this new book: his gift for dialogue, precise observation, the well-chosen anecdote or detail which reveals a place, and a full cast of fascinating characters. From the brilliant opening chapter — which startles by calling into question the very practice of travel writing — you can expect to be well and truly hooked.
But don’t take my word for it. Pick up a copy for yourself.