Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

Paul Theroux - Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar (2008) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) (McClelland and Stewart).

Beyond the Oxus
In the autumn of 1934, the 27 year old Peter Fleming, adventurer, journalist, travel writer--and elder brother of the yet to be famous Ian--embarked on a trip from Krasnovodsk on the Caspian Sea coast, to Samarkand: a three or four day journey through the deserts of Central Asia aboard the Trans-Caspian Railway--the "express" train. His brief account of this rough trip through parts of the Soviet world--old Transoxiana--was later given as a BBC radio piece and collected in his With the Guards to Mexico! (1957). His descriptions of the conditions of this train and his co-travellers is strangely parallel to the experiences of Paul Theroux as he travelled the Bukhara Express to Samarkand in the year 2006, recounted in his latest travel book, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: on the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar. Certainly there have been many historical changes over the 70 years, but it seems the conditions of the trains--possibly the same rolling stock--and the conditions of the co-passengers have changed very little. Considering that Paul Theroux ended up having nine people crammed into a four-person compartment for the over-nighter is perhaps a sign that conditions have actually deteriorated. But, as he has said, "luxury is the enemy of observation." I have to tip my imaginary Tilly to Paul. He was 65 years old, and this section of his trip was but a fraction of the journey which had him retracing the steps of his 1973 adventure by train through Asia and back, The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), in an effort to revisit the ghost of his younger self, and to see what has changed, and what has remained the same.

Beyond South London
Paul Theroux was born in 1941 and grew up with his large family in Medford, Massachussetts. By the 1960s, a well-informed, intelligent young man, he had joined the Peace Corps and was off to teach in Africa and later in South East Asia, taking opportunities to travel when he could. By 1973, in his early thirties, he was living the exile's life in London with his wife, a BBC producer, and their two young children. He was a seasoned professional writer by this time, with six published novels under his belt, one more set for the printers, and one in the making, plus a book of criticism, many "pieces" of journalism, and many, many book reviews. What possessed him to leave this professional existence behind for a four months journey of adventure and discomfort? (Sitting in a room for most of the day writing sentences may have had something to do with it.) Perhaps he had reached a point in his life, an arrival if you will, which rubbed up against a need for a grand departure: a need to abandon the static position in favour of one of locomotion; a need for reality in lieu of imagination; a need for conversation rather than soliloquy; a need to throw himself into the world and let the depths of possibility help keep him afloat. A romantic suggestion. Akin, perhaps, to Stein's dictum in Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim. However, he has written that he wanted to make more money--a refrain amongst writers--and he received his first advance for what would become The Great Railway Bazaar, a book that became a best seller. It was a pivotal time in his life. He succeeded in forging an innovative template for travel writing--which others were to follow--and he used this template creatively to write further books based on further travels such as The Old Patagonian Express, The Kingdom by the Sea, Sailing Through China, Riding the Iron Rooster, The Happy Isles of Oceania, The Pillars of Hercules and Dark Star Safari, experiences that also helped fuel his prolific output of novels, novellas and short stories.

With Theroux's revisitation in 2006, his retracing the route of his youthful journey, he offers revelations of his personal life concerning not only the present, but of the past as well. Seeing memory itself as a ghost train, he fills in the backcloth to the first journey with the personal context he did not reveal the first time round. The ghost theme plays throughout the book, rather like a musical leitmotif. Many of the train trips are night trains to dream-like destinations: Night Train to Baku: the Trans-Caucasian, Ghost Train to Mandalay, or Night Train to Kyoto: the Twilight Express, and Theroux often muses philosophical about travel itself, what he refers to as his Tao of Travel. The archetypal structure to his trip, the hero's circular journey, is lightly played upon in his present book, his wife playing the part of Penelope, knitting while she worries over her husband's return, while he, an older Odysseus, always travelling alone, benefits from the openess of strangers. As a reader, I felt like a ghost hovering over his shoulder, listening in on conversations with multi-charactered humanity, and attentively following his observations and gleanings on the overland route.

With this contrast between youth and age, between the first and second journey, we have the comparitive contrasts of countries and cultures--the historical context. In the first railway trip, he travelled through Iran and Afghanistan, but for this trip he had to follow a northern route through Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan and we see such a striking contrast of these countries and their oppressive governments, with India where every rickshaw driver has a cell-phone and there is a positive and polite work ethic, though one challenged by over-population and poverty. Theroux provides us with glimpses of the "dystopia of Turkmenistan, melancholy rural India, the open prison of Burma, the social laboratory of Singapore", and a great deal more. And he has his requisite meetings with fellow authors, this time Orhan Pamuk in Turkey, Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka--an aged oddity--Haruki Murakami in Japan--a fascinating outsider and observer of his own society--and his good friend Pico Iyer in Japan as well. And there are the many characters he encounters such as Mr. Karpoorchand on the train to Jaipur with his unusual retirement plan, Mr. Kumara on the train to Kandy who reads Theroux's palm, Oo-Nawng, the rickshaw driver in Mandalay who Theroux befriends and reaches out to, and the Bernard family at Candacraig, a small hotel in Maymyo, Burma, the relatives of the Mr. Bernard he had written about in the first book and many, many more. Theroux has a keen eye for interesting characters, and this is one of the great strengths of his travel narratives, the interesting characters he discovers and brings to the page. His well-burnished ability for "casting strangers for roles in my narrative" as he puts it in his most recent book, seems almost an innate talent for observing human nature.

The opening of his first travel narrative The Great Railway Bazaar, reads very much like a novel due to his observations of character. Leaving London in 1973, he finds himself bunked together on the delapidated Orient Express with a Mr. R. Duffill, a rather odd man who reminded me immediately of Anthony Burgess's creation, Enderby, the oh so idiosyncratic poet. Poor old Duffill, with his essence of Enderby, his name becoming a verb, duffilled in Domodossola, watching in stilted horror as the train left the station without him. And of course there was Molesworth and his mineral water. Theroux reveals the true name of the man who was Molesworth in his latest book. One could do worse than be cast by Theroux. If one made it to the page, one could dine out on it for quite some time.

Though he mentions it is common to hear of young upstarts trying to make a name for themselves by retracing the footsteps of famous journeys made in the past, it is not common for writers to retrace their own footsteps. It seems Paul Theroux has managed, once again, to find his way home in an original way.

New Note: from Bill Thompson's Eye On Books: an audio interview with Paul Theroux:

Further audio interviews can be found here.

1 comment:

Gentle Reader said...

I really want to read this! Thanks so much for the lovely post :)