On the rails again
Travel legend Theroux retraces his famous journey
Paul Theroux is one of those writers who needs no introduction. Something of a firebrand early on, but always a critical darling, Theroux has made a career of observing human nature around the world, and regaling his readers with tales (both fact and fiction) of lands and people they will likely never get to see firsthand. Genre-jumping from travel literature to mainstream fiction and back again, Theroux's books have repeatedly appeared on both fiction and nonfiction bestseller lists: Saint Jack, The Mosquito Coast, The Old Patagonian Express, Sunrise with Seamonsters, the list goes on and on (and on).
In the mid-1970s, Theroux embarked on the journey that would become the basis for his bestseller The Great Railway Bazaar. An epic tale of an overland passage from London to the mysterious East, it was the inspiration for a generation of off-the-beaten-path travelers, including yours truly. Thirty years on, Theroux decided to reprise his journey, to see what changes time had wrought, both in the people and places he had visited, and in his perception of them. The chronicle of that trip is Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar.
It must be said, I lost control of my interview with Theroux in the first five minutes, if indeed I ever had it at all. The conversation scampered off in various directions, clearly with a mind of its own, with me furiously jotting down notes in hopes of being able to craft a cohesive narrative at some future date.
"I set off with the intention of writing a travel book," Theroux begins, speaking from his home in Cape Cod, "so in some ways my experiences will be different than those of a pleasure traveler. I write in longhand. I keep a journal or a notebook that I write in every day. I travel fairly light. I don't carry a laptop with me. My only concession to modern technology on this trip was a BlackBerry that doubled as a cell phone and an Internet receiver."
Once outside the sheltering cocoon of "civilized" Europe, Theroux found himself in the Blanche DuBois-esque situation of having to rely on the kindness of strangers: "It's just a question of trust. When I set off, I assume that I need to take risks. Otherwise, nothing will happen, and there will be no story." There isn't any danger of that in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: Theroux is at the mercy of unkempt taxi drivers, daredevil motorcycle rickshaw pilots and all manner of other perilous ground transport providers, the proverbial accident waiting to happen (all of which must have played hell with his digestive system, but makes great edge-of-the-seat reading for the rest of us). In one vignette, he actually has to crawl in the window of a dilapidated jalopy because the door is broken. No mean feat for a man in his seventh decade.
I was particularly interested in reading and hearing what Theroux would have to say about Japan, my adopted homeland for half the year. He had a superb guide in the person of Japanese author Haruki Murakami, with whom he spent the day seeing the "insider's" Tokyo. "You travel, sometimes you get lucky," he says. "I got lucky and spent the day with Haruki. He knows the city intimately. To be with a writer in his city is the best way to get to know a place. The writer has the key; they are the 'noticers' of everything."
Nevertheless, I find myself a bit at odds with Theroux's depiction of Japan as a somewhat aloof place, less than welcoming to the traveler, and broach that topic with him: "That doesn't surprise me that you would have a different experience of it," he says. "If two people take the same trip, it's not really the same trip, is it? That's normal." He's right, of course.
There is no doubt a certain cachet to being a writer, both with the reading public and with other practitioners of the craft; it can open doors that otherwise might remain firmly closed. In addition to meeting with Murakami, Theroux was able to spend an afternoon chatting with iconic novelist Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey, Childhood's End) at his home in Sri Lanka shortly before Clarke's death in March. "He asked if I played table tennis." Theroux says. "It was his great hobby, his only sport. He was, of course, too old to play anymore. He was confined to a wheelchair." Theroux was more diplomatic in person: "I'll play you anytime, but I'm sure I'd lose." As an aside, I mention that some 25 years ago, while on a semester-at-sea program, my brother had the opportunity to visit Clarke in Sri Lanka, and had been soundly drubbed by the even-then-elderly pingpong hustler. "How good was your brother?" Theroux asks. "Not too darn bad," I reply, thinking of thumpings I had taken a time or two at his hands.
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star is likely unique in one respect; Theroux notes early on in the book: "What traveler backtracked to take the same trip again? None of the good ones that I know. Greene never returned to the Liberian bush, nor to Mexico, nor to Vietnam. In his late fifties, Waugh dismissed modern travel altogether as mere tourism and a waste of time . . . Robert Byron did not take the road to Oxiana again . . . Chatwin never returned to Patagonia." In revisiting the scenes of his earlier journey, Theroux takes note not only of the changes to the places, but also his markedly different outlook: "The first trip was about five months long. This trip lasted about a year with a short break in the middle. The first time out, I was homesick and very impatient. As you get older, I think you get more patient." This is quite evident in his writing, perhaps the most startling contrast in his work, particularly if you read the new book and one of his earlier travelogues back to back.
Theroux is among the most scrupulously honest of the contemporary traveler/observers, harkening back to a style pioneered by Sir Richard Burton and Robert Byron. He never goes for the sentimental anecdote or the easy laugh, although both can be found in his writing from time to time. Instead, he offers his readers a reporter's-eye view of strange lands: serious and thought-provoking, fleshing out the minuscule details that most of us would never notice on our own, thus giving his readers a sense of "being there," if only vicariously.
Bruce Tierney travels the world from home bases in Japan and eastern Canada.