“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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.’ ”