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Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

Paul Theroux retraces his epic railway journey, 30 years later.

By Matt Shaer / August 20, 2008



“The decision to return to any early scene in your life is dangerous but irresistible, not as a search for lost time but for the grotesquerie of what happened since.”

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So writes Paul Theroux, author of a spectacular new memoir, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. He means it not as a warning, but as an apologia: Like Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish journalist, Theroux earned his literary fame by exploring those worlds where only the reckless dare tread.

For Kapuscinski, this meant the restive climes of late 1950s and early ’60s Africa rocking in a violent realignment of power.

For Theroux, in “Ghost Train,” it now means his own past, a feeling something “like meeting an old lover years later and hardly recognizing the object of desire in this pinched and bruised old fruit.” He is a “witness to the wobbling of the world”; he lives “with fantasies of transformation,” and yearns to see “who I was, where I went, and what subsequently happened to the places I had seen.”

Some three decades ago, Theroux wended his way across Europe, the Middle East, and a good chunk of Asia, clattering through by car and camel, but mostly by train – sleeper trains, and “toy” trains, and trains that crossed borders, mountain ranges, entire continents. He published an account of the dry, dusty – and often dangerous – journey in “The Great Railway Bazaar,” now generally recognized as the gold standard of adventure-travel writing.

“The train can reassure you in awful places,” Theroux explained on the first page of that book.

He quoted British novelist Michael Frayn, himself paraphrasing the philosopher Marshall McLuhan: “The journey is the goal.”

But looking back at “The Great Railway Bazaar,” Theroux can see only a misguided wanderlust. He left London all those years ago in bad faith – out of ideas, out of income, intent on escaping a stifling domesticity. And while Theroux was gallivanting through Asia, his first wife became lonely and heartsick; eventually, she took a lover.

Flush from his adventures, Theroux arrived home to discover he had become a ghost to his children, forgotten by his wife. “How could you do this?” he begged. Her answer: “I pretended you were dead.”

“Some betrayals are forgivable, but others you never quite recover from,” Theroux writes in “Ghost Train.”

Eventually, he left London, remarried, and started a new life. And now, 30 years down the line, he has started to feel that old familiar tug – an urge to escape, to pick through a foreign land, to become “that greediest kind of romantic voyeur.” His solution is – yes, one can feel it coming, like an overloaded freight train – to travel, to push off halfway across the world.

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