“Brilliant. No one writes with Theroux’s head-on intensity and raptness, and his descriptions made me want to jump on the next plane to Istanbul (and also, of course, to many of the other places he evokes). I particularly loved the spectral motif, the ghosts and shadows and underground presences that flit through the narrative, giving the whole a half-seen and haunting dimension that no book of travels I’ve ever read conjures up.”
— Pico Iyer
“Theroux wanders to places that scarcely cross other travel writers’ minds.”
— Kirkus Reviews
“As thoughtful and observant as ever…this trip finds Theroux reflecting not only on changes to the landscape but also to himself…a wonderful book infused with the insights of maturity…it’s a reminder that in this age of increasingly homogenous urban centers and easy air travel, those who really want to discern national differences should stay on the ground.”
— Booklist, starred review
GHOST TRAIN TO THE EASTERN STAR
On The Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar
by Paul Theroux
Half a lifetime ago, Paul Theroux embarked on a journey from Europe to East Asia by train. His recounting of it, the classic The Great Railway Bazaar, marked the beginning of a new kind of travel narrative. Thirty-three years later, Theroux—older, wiser, still dauntless—retraces his steps and finds a different world, as he relates in GHOST TRAIN TO THE EASTERN STAR: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar (Houghton Mifflin, August 18, 2008). Speckled with his customary wit, curiosity, and insight, this account of the return journey captures the colors of a changed continent in this, his most provocative book yet.
“Since I will never write the autobiography I once envisioned—volume one, Who I Was, volume two, I Told You So—writing about travel has become a way of making sense of my life.” On his first trip, Theroux experienced the joys and loneliness of long-distance trains—and back home his marriage fell apart. Embarking on the same trip again he writes, “To my sorrow . . . I relived much of the pain that I’d thought I’d forgotten.”
“Without change there can be no nostalgia,” writes Theroux, “and I realized that what I began to witness was not just change and decay, but imminent extinction.” As he recounts the vagaries of his own life over the past thirty-three years, he realizes that the world he saw has been altered even more. The man who traveled in the 1970s rode on trains mostly pulled by steam locomotives; Eastern Europe and much of Asia were still in the iron grip of communism. This time, taking the Ghost Train, Theroux sees that the economic hangover from the fall of the Soviet Union continues; the Chinese government bulldozes villages in its relentless march of progress; Southeast Asian towns, populated by stoners and prostitutes during wartime, have become sleepy backwaters.
In each place he goes, Theroux finds fascinating conversation. In India he has a chance encounter with Prince Charles, who attended the premiere of the film of Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast twenty years ago. In Jodhpur he takes tea with Gaj Singh II, who became maharajah at age four and claims to be a descendant of the sun deity. In Vientiane he meets Fiona, a solitary traveler who regales him with stories that make him lose his appetite and reveals her dream of being Michael Palin. Sri Lanka offers the opportunity to connect with Sir Arthur C. Clarke a short time before his death. And in Khon Kaen, Thailand, he gets into a spiritual argument with a missionary from Missouri, hell-bent on spreading the almighty word.
“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.” Retracing the steps he took decades ago forces him to confront not only life on the other side of the world, but also all the changes of one’s own lifetime. “We all live with fantasies of transformation. Live long enough and you see them enacted.”
Paul Theroux virtually reinvented the travel writing genre, beginning with The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia, published in 1975. Since then he has dazzled critics and readers alike with books about his trips through China (Riding the Iron Rooster, Sailing Through China), Great Britain (The Kingdom by the Sea), India (The Imperial Way), Latin America (The Old Patagonian Express), the Pacific islands (The Happy Isles of Oceania), and the Mediterranean (The Pillars of Hercules). His New York Times bestseller Dark Star Safari was “a wonderful, powerful book, a loving letter to Africa from a writer who has discovered that he has carried something of its essence, like a talisman, through his adult life” (London Sunday Times). The Elephanta Suite, his recent collection of short fiction, was praised by Time as being “a set of brilliantly evocative and propulsive novellas.”
In addition to his fifteen works of nonfiction and criticism, Theroux is the author of twenty-seven books of fiction, including Hotel Honolulu, Kowloon Tong, My Other Life, and Millroy the Magician. His novels Saint Jack, The Mosquito Coast, and Half Moon Street have been made into successful feature films, and he has won the prestigious Whitbread Prize for Picture Palace and the James Tait Black Award for The Mosquito Coast.
During his travels in the Pacific, Theroux came to love Hawaii. He is now married to a woman from Hawaii and lives on the North Shore of Oahu, among many birds and geese and bees — Theroux is also a beekeeper. He spends his summers on Cape Cod, not far from where he grew up. He has two grown sons who are writers (Louis and Marcel).