ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

'Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar' by Paul Theroux

IN 1973, an expatriate American novelist possessed of great ambitions, pretty good reviews and slender means set out from London's Victoria Station to circumnavigate the great Eurasian land mass, mostly by train. Two years later, he published an account of that epic journey, "The Great Railway Bazaar."

The 32-year-old novelist was Paul Theroux, and it overstates nothing to say that his book turned the page and set down the beginnings of a new chapter in one of literature's oldest continuous genres: travel writing. Without Theroux's example, it is hard to imagine those authors -- Jonathan Raban, Bruce Chatwin, Bill Barich and others -- whose books we now savor as participants in a golden age of travel writing.

In his new book, "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar," Theroux sets out to retrace -- as best that politics will permit -- his earlier journey. As in all of his subsequent travel books, however, his real route is through the geography of the self, but before weighing the implications of that fact, it's worth considering exactly what the book (and experience) he commemorates achieved.

Travel writing looms large as a genre not simply for the distinguished writers who have turned their hand to it but also because it is one of those rare forms whose roots run deeply into various literary cultures. There are those, for example, who would situate the origins of Western travel writing among classical authors, but a clearer case can be made for the Italian Renaissance, which produced "The Travels of Marco Polo" -- a continental bestseller in an era before printing presses -- and Petrarch's account of his ascent of Mt. Ventoux in 1336. Actually, the first recognizable European travel writing is Islamic and dates to the high Middle Ages, when Ibn Jubayr set out from Granada in Al-Andalus for the Muslim holy places. Nearly two centuries earlier, China's Su Shi had turned travel into a mode of philosophical exploration with his "Record of Stone Bell Mountain." Japan's great haiku master Matsuo Bash{omacronl} turned his last and greatest travel sketch, "The Narrow Road to the Deep North," into one of the 17th century's unambiguous masterpieces. The latter two works loom large, moreover, because the credible antecedents of Theroux's revolutionary approach are clearest in these Asian writers.

By the early 1970s, though, travel writing seemed a charming relic. The problem was technological rather than solely literary. Relatively inexpensive global air transport had ushered in an era of mass tourism, which is the antithesis of traditional travel. The latter is personal and particular; the former an adjunct of the consumer society. A traveler is a specific kind of witness; a tourist is somebody's customer. The experience on which travel writing had been based seemed dead. Theroux solved the problem by changing the subject -- to himself, the traveler, in relation to the experience of departure, arrival and all that transpires in between. Neither wholly expositive nor entirely subjective, it was a fresh approach that allowed for the adaptation of the novelist's manipulation of scenes and dialogue.

"Ghost Train to the Eastern Star" is a mature and thoroughly engrossing example of what that now-30-year-old theoretical departure has accomplished -- which is a great deal. Essentially, we are the author's companions rather than the audience for his tales. Indeed, certain intimacies are shared that were withheld in the "Great Railway Bazaar." We learn, for example, that when Theroux undertook that first journey, he essentially forfeited his wife and family. By the time he returned, his wife had taken a lover, who had supplanted him in his children's affections. There's a new wife, this time around, and the author and she stay in touch by cellphone and BlackBerry -- a new world in more ways than one.

Theroux is, figuratively at least, swimming against the tide as he travels west to east, since most of what used to be the Eastern Bloc seems to hope to come west, and his personal journey is saturated with memory's sepia tones. There are the characteristic Theroux insights, as in Hungary, where he shares his personal thesis that exploring a people's taste in pornography is one way to gain insight into their national character. The author exults in Romania, where he's able to re-experience the Eastern Bloc squalor of his earlier journey. His evocation of Istanbul is memorable, not least for his connection to the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk: "I smiled when it dawned on me that he reminded me of myself -- evasive, goofy, slightly moody, ill at ease in a crowd, uncomfortable at formal occasions. Latins look a lot like Turks: I felt he physically resembled me, and he had my oblique habit of affecting to be ignorant and a bit gauche in order to elicit information."

What's really remarkable about "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star" is how much it reveals about Theroux the writer in precisely the way that self-regarding passage suggests. One of the problems Theroux presents to the careful reader is the fact that he's a compelling writer who is essentially unlikable. In part, that's a consequence of his blimpish judgments on everyone upon whom his disapproval settles -- including the rich and the Chinese, as a people. (On the other hand, his descriptions of Japan's Hokkaido manage to be robust and exquisite, all at once. Go figure.)

Theroux is a famous controversialist. His book-length dust-ups with his longtime friend and mentor, the Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul, are the stuff of legend. He's also a bit of a tease, insisting that the novelist's prerogatives, particularly when it comes to issues of identity, belong equally to the writer of nonfiction. In a recent interview, for example, he remarked, "I think that what people call grumpy, prickly or dyspeptic [in my work] is really a misunderstanding of irony. Because a lot of irony looks like dyspepsia. Irony looks like prickliness. But actually it's just another form of humor, isn't it?"

At the conclusion to "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star," Theroux writes: "It's true that travel is the saddest of pleasures, the long-distance overland blues. . . . Most of the world is worsening, shrinking to a ball of bungled desolation. Only the old can really see how gracelessly the world is aging and all that we have lost. Politicians are always inferior to their citizens. No one on earth is well governed." And yet, Theroux acknowledges most people he met along the way were kind and helped him. At the end of the journey, though the author declines to state it, we're back to "We must love one another or die."

Where's the irony in that?

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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