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Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

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

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But instead of uncharted territory, Theroux decides he will retrace his trip from the “The Great Railway Bazaar.” “Ghost Train,” therefore, becomes as much an emotional journey as a physical pilgrimage. He is now traveling to see how far he has come, to remember those bygone places, some “sad and spectral, others big and hectic.”

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He is traveling to become “the haunting presence, the eavesdropping shadow on the ghost train.”

His itinerary is founded mostly on a single compass point – east – and he hurtles out of London at a vicious clip, alighting in Paris for a moment, finding a “city of mellow cheese-like stone and pitted facades and boulevards.”

Then it’s on to Budapest – “the old pockmarked city of puddles, smutty under the snowmelt” – and Istanbul, “a city with the soul of a village.” As in “The Great Railway Bazaar,” Theroux’s skill lies not in mere aesthetic awareness, although each impression, as his train groans into Singapore, or Turkmenistan, is writ large, in a language both florid and erudite.

He is a cultural raconteur nonpareil: He sees each city as a refracting lens of the citizenry; each lonely stone outcropping as a manifestation of the people – lonely or headstrong; pious or “boasting and booming” inside.

Here is Theroux, for instance, on the maelstrom of modern India: “Yet the country still ran, in its clunky fashion, all its mends and patches showing, and what looked like chaos in India was actually a kind of order, like furious atoms spinning.”

Not long after I graduated from college, I spent some time wandering around India, by train and also by the kind of public bus that always veers a little too fast across a busy street or a lonely cliff-side road, its wheels forever in danger of escaping out from under the carriage.

For company, I carried a copy of “The Great Railway Bazaar”; I read it in the early morning hours, or on the interminable overnight rail rides, when I was unsure exactly where I was going to end up. In Theroux’s first masterpiece, I found a sense of solidarity with the wandering classes – the ones who know that the journey is the goal and that the best adventures can never be planned.

“Ghost Train to the Eastern Star,” with its rattle-bang, mud-soaked grandeur, feels no less dogged. But the pressing need to escape, embodied in “The Great Railway Bazaar,” has been replaced by an urge to understand, to unpack an intimate sort of alchemy.

As Theroux suggests, the best trips move in two directions – outward across the unknown, and inward, into “the darkness, as you lie in the train, moving through the world as travelers do, ‘inside the whale.’ ”

Matthew Shaer is a staff writer based in Brooklyn.


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