Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Ghost Train to the Evening Star by Paul Theroux

I wonder how Theroux feels about being better known as a travel writer than as a novelist -- he's clearly cynical and grumpy enough to derive a contrary pleasure from that, even though his novels are obviously more central to his actual working life. (And I can say that, ironically, even though I've only read his travel books, and even though saying that makes me feel guilty.)

But Theroux is better known as a travel writer, and he's a splendid one: ever since 1975's The Great Railway Bazaar, Theroux has taken a long trip somewhere every three years or so, produced a solidly bestselling book based on that trip, and then gone back to his regular novel-writing life. Travel stories are always about the collision of the traveler with the world, and Theroux is a marvelous character in his own telling: as clear-eyed about problems and difficulties as Waugh, but with a modern fatalism and willingness to accept whatever the world can dish out and a tropism towards at least the semblance of "authenticity." Theroux wants to see what it's actually like, not how locals will treat him if he insists on his Western privilege (and his famous-writer aura).

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star marks the first time Theroux has retraced any of those trips; it tells the story of a 2006 journey that mostly followed the path of the 1973 trip that became Great Railway Bazaar. That's only "mostly" because some countries that were open to travelers then (Afghanistan, for example) are not now, but the opposite is also true (Burma/Myanmar). Theroux finds a handful of people and places from Bazaar, but Ghost Train is more about personal aging and the way the world changes than about nostalgia and revisiting old haunts -- Theroux was desperately unhappy (as he makes bluntly clear in this book) during the travels that became Bazaar, and that long trip also materially contributed to the break-up of his marriage. Theroux claims to be happier and more settled in Ghost Train, and not to be hiding his deep misery, as he did in the earlier book. There may be an element of "I was fooling you before, but now I'll tell you the truth" in that, but it feels honest and real: Theroux is more honestly introspective in this book than in Bazaar, and more expansive about what it means to travel, the joys and annoyances of living away from home for long stretches.

The greatest test of a travel book is how much it makes the reader want to share that experience, and Theroux -- no matter how much he focuses on the grime, the delays, the petty bureaucratic annoyances, the horrible schedules, the often grinding boredom, the sheer waste of time -- still makes his travels into a hopeful journey of discovery. There are still parts of the planet that he hasn't yet wandered through, and he's not as old as he sometimes claims he is in this book, so I can still hope for several more trips with Theroux still to come.

No comments:

Post a Comment