Thursday, January 12, 2012

Literary Bite: Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

In Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Paul Theroux re-creates his first cross-continental train trip (chronicled in The Great Railway Bazaar), thirty years after the fact. In a 25,000 mile journey, he revisits England, France, Romania, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam, Japan, and Russia. He travels by train because it is "probably the best way of getting a glimpse of how people actually live—the back yards, the barns, the hovels, the side roads and slums, the telling facts of village life, the misery that airplanes fly over."

In many ways this is a sequel – Theroux often compares his travel experiences in 2005 to 1973/4. But Ghost Train is a stand-alone work, so you don’t have to have read The Great Railway Bazaar to appreciate it. (I’ve read four of his other books:  Dark Star SafariThe Elephanta Suite, and My Other Life, and will get to The Great Railway Bazaar eventually.)

Along the way he meets up with fellow authors Orhan Pamuk (Have you read Snow? I loved it), and Haruki Murakami (who I do not love).

Though I enjoyed the book, it’s probably my least favorite of Theroux’s works. I most liked the parts about India (probably because I’ve been there). Also because I could see where people he met on his travels fit into  The Elephanta Suite, a book that started as short stories he wrote on this trip.

The book is long (about 500 pages), but most chapters are pretty short, and tell of one leg of his journey (i.e. “Night Train to Ankara”).  I found myself thinking of recommending specific chapters to specific friends – like   like Jess should read the Vietnam parts, SpeedyKate  should read about Turkey. That could be the best way to read Ghost Train, by geographic relevance. 

The NY Times did not love it - they think Theroux is arrogant. Which he is, but he is also a great writer...

Telegraph UK was a bit harsh too.