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Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaarby Paul Theroux
"The Great Railway Bazaar re-invested railway travel with the interest and romance of Twain's day, replacing that age's thrill of the modern with the appeal of the neglected and quaint....Now, in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, he revisits the scenes of his original great railway journey thirty-three years earlier, intending then-and-now comparisons, not least between his younger and older selves." Ian Jack, the New York Review of Books (read the entire New York Review of Books review)
Synopses & Reviews
An unmitigated treat for the hundreds of thousands of fans of the first Bazaar.
In The New Railway Bazaar, Theroux recreates an epic journey he took thirty years ago, a giant loop by train (mostly) through Eastern Europe, Turkey, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, China, Japan, and Siberia. In short, he traverses all of Asia top to bottom, and end to end. In the three decades since he first travelled this route, Asia has undergone phenomenal change. The Soviet Union has collapsed, China has risen, India booms, Burma slowly smothers, and Vietnam prospers despite the havoc unleashed upon it the last time Theroux passed through. He witnesses all this and more in a 25,000 mile journey, travelling as the locals do, by train, car, bus, and foot.
His odyssey takes him from Eastern Europe, still hungover from Communism, through tense but thriving Turkey, into the Caucasus, where Georgia limps back toward feudalism while its neighbour Azerbaijan revels in oil-driven capitalism. As he penetrates deeper into Asia's heart, his encounters take on an otherworldly cast. The two chapters that follow show us Turkmenistan, a profoundly isolated society at the mercy of an almost comically egotistical dictator, and Uzbekistan, a ruthless authoritarian state. From there, he retraces his steps through India, Mayanmar, China, and Japan, providing his penetrating observations on the changes these countries have undergone.
Brilliant, caustic, and totally addictive, The New Railway Bazaar is Theroux at his very best.
"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." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
In 1973, Paul Theroux was down on his luck. As he says in his revealingly autobiographical new travel book, "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star," his early life had been full of humiliation and failure, and he writes with feeling of "my nagged and scolded childhood, my undistinguished school career as a punk, no good at games, bewildered in college, terminated early from the Peace Corps, disgraced from... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Singapore (University) when my contract wasn't renewed, hard up in London, refused a credit card by American Express at the age of thirty-two because I had no visible credit." Nor was his early literary career a blazing success. Critics gave only a modest reception to his early novels "Waldo," "Fong and the Indians" and "Jungle Lovers," and none of them sold more than a few hundred copies. Then, in 1973, Theroux somehow convinced his publisher to give him an advance for a book about train travel. That year, he set off from Victoria Station in London for a months-long journey to Tokyo Central. The resulting book, "The Great Railway Bazaar," came out two years later and sold more than 1.5 million copies; it has since been translated into some 20 languages. The book provided Theroux with an income and a career. It also breathed new life into the sort of travel memoir that had flourished in an earlier and less politically correct age, but which had languished since the European empires imploded after World War II. Theroux liked to depict himself as the contemptuous and coolly detached curmudgeon abroad, filling the long hours in the railway carriage by scribbling uncharitable comments about his fellow passengers into his notebook: ticking one off for his incomprehensible accent, another for being ugly, a third for his terrible dress sense. "The Great Railway Bazaar" was, however, hugely engaging. Part of the fun of it was that the author painted such a rivetingly unflattering portrait of himself — was this deliberate? It was hard to tell. In the years that followed, Theroux applied the same techniques to South America, Britain and China, before heading off to sea in "The Happy Isles of Oceania." Here, he paddled around the Pacific, writing off whole nations in single, stinging sentences: The Japanese are "little bowlegged people who can't see without glasses," he tells us in "Happy Isles," while Melanesians are "small scowling knob-headed blacks with short legs and big dusty feet." Tongans meanwhile are "unapologetic, envious, abrupt, lazy, mocking, quarrelsome, and peculiarly sadistic to their children." This sort of thing is not to everyone's taste (the London Sunday Times advised its readers that "The Kingdom by the Sea" was "best avoided by patriots with high blood pressure"), but the books sold and Theroux's star rose. Now a grizzled pensioner in his 60s, divorced and remarried, and splitting his time between Cape Cod and Hawaii, Theroux has retraced his own footsteps. In "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star," he takes roughly the same route as he did in 1973, revisiting the countries he traveled through on the "Bazaar" journey more than 30 years ago. He also revisits his younger self, traveling like "a ghost" through his own memories. Age, he asserts, gives you "the gift to evaluate decay." Occasionally, his route is blocked by political upheaval: Refused a visa for Iran, he loops across the Caucasus, crosses the dangerous borderlands between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, before flying over Afghanistan into India. The book is also full of personal revelations hidden in the earlier book. We are told how, for example, that when Theroux set off on that first journey, he effectively lost his wife and family. None of them wanted him to go, and by the time he returned, his wife had taken a lover. The marriage never recovered. At his best, Theroux is still an addictively engaging writer, endlessly curious and perceptive, hardy, chatty and sometimes very funny. There are one or two fabulous set pieces, such as a beautifully sketched scene in a soup kitchen in Tblisi: "This scene was almost Chaucerian, something almost medieval and bawdy about each heavily dressed, red-faced person gobbling at a big tin bowl of soup and a big bowl of bread — a whole round loaf cut into chunks — and a saucer of noodle salad sprinkled with oregano. The clank of spoons, the slurping of soup, the laughter, the yelling, children squawking, bowls being brought in on trays and banged down on the trestle tables: it was a rollicking scene of appetite and good cheer." The trouble is that these high points are few and far between, and through much of the book there is a strong feeling that Theroux's heart is not really in it. He is not interested in the architecture (he blandly describes both church towers and minarets as "spires") or the history of the places through which he passes. Indeed, his only real pleasure seems to come from keeping company with fellow writers: The book comes to life when he meets Orhan Pamuk and the beautiful Elif Shafak in Istanbul, has dinner with Pico Iyer in Kyoto and visits a sex shop with Haruki Murakami in Tokyo. Elsewhere, however, we have the usual one-line dismissals of entire nations — Georgia, for example, is "a supine and beleaguered country of people narcissistic about their differences" — and the endless train journeys and disappointing meals seem increasingly pointless. Also, the prose of "Ghost Train" is uneven and repetitious: We are told over and over again about his idea of the East-to-West migration of the poor and the ambitious. And there are factual errors: The city of Byzantium, founded in 657 B.C., was already 900 years old in A.D. 300 when Theroux believes it was established. His descriptions of cities and landscapes are rarely better than workmanlike, and the book is full of one-line banalities: "I always felt lucky on a train"; "Most of the world is worsening, shrinking to a ball of bungled desolation"; "No one on earth is well governed." A particularly lame but revealing moment comes when Theroux visits a sex shop in Budapest: "A country's pornography," he writes, "offers the quickest insight into the culture and inner life of a nation." Compare this with one of the great masters of the genre, Robert Byron. As Bruce Chatwin wrote in his introduction to "The Road to Oxiana," Byron was a "connoisseur of civilizations" who had an "uncanny ability to gauge the morale of a civilization from its architecture, and to treat ancient buildings and modern people as two facets of a continuing story." Both techniques have their revelations, but there is little doubt which of the two makes for more profound reading. The truth — and this is something that Theroux says quite openly — is that he doesn't like travel books any longer: "Little better than a license to bore," he asserts in his new book, "travel writing is the lowest form of literary self-indulgence: dishonest complaining, creative mendacity, pointless heroics, and chronic posturing." So why then does Theroux go on churning out these carelessly written and increasingly dyspeptic travelogues? The answer is presumably that they provide him with sales, visibility and an income that his parallel career as a writer of fiction has never equaled. It is his curse as a writer that despite producing nearly 30 works of fiction, he is still best known as a travel writer, a profession he has come to despise. Yet the travel book remains, at least potentially, a hugely flexible and capacious pot into which a wonderfully varied selection of ingredients can be thrown by an imaginative writer. Theroux was himself one of the main causes of the modern revival of travel writing. The success of the "Great Railway Bazaar" inspired Bruce Chatwin to give up his job and to go off to South America. The result — "In Patagonia" — was published in 1977, the same year Patrick Leigh Fermor produced "A Time of Gifts," and Theroux's former friend V.S. Naipaul published his brilliant "India: A Wounded Civilization." The three books remain among the unsurpassed masterpieces of postwar travel writing. All stand as monuments to the possibilities of the genre, and also show up the superficiality and inadequacies of Theroux's more recent work. The tragedy is that Theroux is not without great talents — far from it; flashes of wit and even genius pepper the pages of this book. But aware that his travel books sell anyway, he has become lazy, and this slapdash and uneven job is a poor reflection of the 1975 book that first made his name. "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star" is not without its moments, but by the end the reader is left with the unmistakable impression that this great train traveler has run out of steam. William Dalrymple is the author of "From the Holy Mountain" and "The Last Mughal." Reviewed by William Dalrymple, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"[P]laces include everything from porn shops to sex traffickers. In short, this is not light reading. Nevertheless, Theroux is an important American writer." Library Journal
"A wonderful book infused with the insights of maturity, this succeeds on many levels while also doing what the best travel writing can't help but do: make the reader want to hit the road." Booklist
"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." Kirkus Reviews
"I heartily recommend Paul Theroux's Ghost Train to the Eastern Star to every benighted passenger who has struggled aboard a jammed flight after hours of the delays and cancellations that are the daily staple of air travel today. In its provocative and diverting pages, you will be reminded how much you have lost besides wasted hours in dreary airports." Philadelphia Inquirer
"[T]here is still much pleasure in accompanying this writer down familiar train tracks and across still exotic landscapes." Chicago Tribune
"Mr. Theroux rarely misses a chance to complain about the roiling indigenous crowds or tartly abuse the lobster-faced European pleasure seekers and fat American missionaries who cross his path." New York Times
"Theroux's provocative new volume...will by necessity take its place on the shelf next to the most renowned travel book of his early career." rocky Mountain News
"Theroux reflects brilliantly on the jarring surreal juxtapositions of the tribal and the corporate, the primitive and the high-tech." Boston Globe
"Brightly rendered and endlessly informative, it serves up one sharp, insightful anecdote or historical tidbit after another." Seattle Times
"Theroux's quick assessments of national character might offend some, but veteran readers will find the author true to his rather dim view of human motives." Milwaukee Star Tribune
Thirty years after the epic journey chronicled in his classic work The Great Railway Bazaar, the worlds most acclaimed travel writer re-creates his 25,000-mile journey through eastern Europe, central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, China, Japan, and Siberia.
Half a lifetime ago, Paul Theroux virtually invented the modern travel narrative by recounting his grand tour by train through Asia. In the three decades since, the world he recorded in that book has undergone phenomenal change. The Soviet Union has collapsed and China has risen; India booms while Burma smothers under dictatorship; Vietnam flourishes in the aftermath of the havoc America was unleashing on it the last time Theroux passed through. And no one is better able to capture the texture, sights, smells, and sounds of that changing landscape than Theroux.
Therouxs odyssey takes him from eastern Europe, still hung-over from communism, through tense but thriving Turkey into the Caucasus, where Georgia limps back toward feudalism while its neighbor Azerbaijan revels in oil-fueled capitalism. Theroux is firsthand witness to it all, traveling as the locals do—by stifling train, rattletrap bus, illicit taxi, and mud-caked foot—encountering adventures only he could have: from the literary (sparring with the incisive Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk) to the dissolute (surviving a week-long bender on the Trans-Siberian Railroad). And wherever he goes, his omnivorous curiosity and unerring eye for detail never fail to inspire, enlighten, inform, and entertain.
PAUL THEROUX was born in Medford, Massachusetts, in 1941 and published his first novel, Waldo, in 1967. His fiction includes The Mosquito Coast, My Secret History, My Other Life, Kowloon Tong, Blinding Light, and most recently, The Elephanta Suite. His highly acclaimed travel books include Riding the Iron Rooster, The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express, Fresh Air Fiend, and Dark Star Safari. He has been the guest editor of The Best American Travel Writing and is a frequent contributor to various magazines, including The New Yorker. He lives in Hawaii and on Cape Cod.
Paul Theroux returns to the transcontinental expedition that made Great Railway Bazaar a classic of travel literature and realizes—in rich, anecdotal detail—how much the world has changed.
Half a lifetime ago, Paul Theroux virtually invented the modern travel narrative by recounting his grand tour by train through Asia. In the three decades since, the world he recorded in that book has undergone phenomenal change. The Soviet Union has collapsed and China has risen; India booms while Burma smothers under dictatorship; Vietnam flourishes in the aftermath of the havoc America was unleashing on it the last time he passed through. In Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Theroux re-creates that earlier journey. His odyssey takes him from eastern Europe, still hung-over from communism, through tense but thriving Turkey into the Caucasus, where Georgia limps back toward feudalism while its neighbor Azerbaijan revels in oil-fueled capitalism. Theroux is firsthand witness to it all, encountering adventures only he could have: from the literary (sparring with the incisive Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk) to the dissolute (surviving a week-long bender on the Trans-Siberian Railroad). Wherever he goes, his omnivorous curiosity and unerring eye for detail never fail to inspire, enlighten, inform, and entertain.
About the Author
Paul Theroux's highly acclaimed books include Dark Star Safari, Riding the Iron Rooster, The Old Patagonian Express, The Elephanta Suite, and, of course, The Great Railway Bazaar. Two of his books, The Mosquito Coast and Dr. Slaughter have been made into successful films. He is a frequent contributor to magazines, including the New Yorker, Smithsonian and Men's Journal. He divides his time between Cape Cod and Hawaii where he is a professional beekeeper.
Table of Contents
Contents 1. The Eurostar 1 2. The Other Orient Express 14 3. The Ferry to Besiktas 40 4. Night Train to Ankara 59 5. Night Train to Tbilisi 68 6. Night Train to Baku: The Trans-Caucasian 88 7. Night Train from Ashgabat to Mary 103 8. Night Train to Tashkent 136 9. The Shan-e-Punjab Express to Delhi 146 10. Night Train to Jodhpur: The Mandore Express 164 11. Night Train to Jaipur 182 12. Night Train to Mumbai: The Superfast” Express 193 13. Night Train to Bangalore: The Udyan Express 210 14. The Shatabdi Express to Chennai 225 15. The Coastal Line to Galle and Hambantota 237 16. The Slow Train to Kandy 258 17. Ghost Train to Mandalay 265 18. The Train to Pyin-Oo-Lwin 283 19. Night Train to Nong Khai 295 20. Night Train to Hat Yai Junction: Special Express 309 21. Night Train to Singapore: The Lankawi Express 316 22. The Slow Train to the Eastern Star 341 23. The Boat Sontepheap to Phnom Penh 351 24. The Mekong Express 367 25. Night Train to Hue 376 26. The Day Train to Hanoi 387 27. Tokyo Andaguraundo 400 28. Night Train to Hokkaido: Hayate Super Express 422 29. The Limited Express: Sarobetsu to Wakkanai 428 30. Night Train to Kyoto: The Twilight Express 440 31. The Trans-Siberian Express 460 32. Night Train to Berlin and Beyond 493
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