Saturday, August 16, 2008

Theroux meets 'the world with its pants down'

It's considered bush-league to begin an essay about a book by quoting a long passage from it, but God help me, I can't resist when the author is Paul Theroux and the work is his splendid new rail-borne travel narrative, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (Houghton Mifflin, $28):

I hate big cities, probably for the same reasons many city people hate wilderness (which I love), because I find them vertiginous, threatening, monochromatic, isolating, exhausting, germ-laden, bristling with busy shadows and ambiguous odors. And the mobs, and all the shared space. Cities look like monstrous cemeteries to me, the buildings like brooding tombstones. I feel lonely and lost in the lit-up necropolis, nauseated by traffic fumes, puzzled by the faces and the frenzy.

When city slicker utopians praise their cities I want to laugh. They whoop about museums and dinner parties, the manic diversions, the zoos, the energy of the streets, and how they can buy a pizza at three in the morning. I love to hear them competing: My big city is better than your big city! They never mention the awful crowds, the foul air, the rackety noise, the marks of weakness, marks of woe, or how a big city is never dark and never silent. And they roost like tiny featherless birds in the confinement of their high apartments, always peering down at the pavement, able to get around only by riding in the smelly back seat of a slow taxi driven by a cranky cabbie.

In that passage Thoreau -- oops, Theroux -- is savaging Tokyo, but he could also be giving the fish eye to Chicago, a city I worked in for so long that I don't miss it at all up here in the woods on the shore of Lake Superior, five miles from the nearest town -- a small one. If I ever should meet my fellow urbanophobe on the beach or a forest trail, the first thing I will do is give him a leaping high five.

Most of my camera-bedecked rail-buff brethren wouldn't, for Theroux isn't interested in the hardware that excites them. He doesn't count rivets or babble about driving wheels. To him a sleeping car is a simple conveyance, a vehicle for intellectual adventure into hearts and minds and the rambunctious and ramshackle worlds they inhabit.

Ghost Train retraces the route he took in his 1978 book The Great Railway Bazaar, from England and France to Hungary and Romania, then Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam, Japan and back to Europe via the Trans-Siberian Express. Not, however, Afghanistan (too dangerous) or Iran (refused a visa).

Theroux travels by night train whenever he can manage it, and never in red-carpet luxury. "Luxury is the enemy of observation, a costly indulgence that induces such a good feeling that you notice nothing. Luxury spoils and infantilizes you and prevents you from knowing the world. That is its purpose, the reason why luxury cruises and great hotels are full of fatheads who, when they express an opinion, seem as though they are from another planet."

Wonderful stuff, and there's a lot of this. Though Ghost Train in some ways lacks the raw, often smart-alecky freshness of Bazaar, a book that redefined the travel narrative, and though it does reflect the wiser, more mature outlook of a sexagenarian who has learned both patience and forbearance, Theroux has lost none of his acerbic, often contrarian brilliance at describing people, places and culture. The grimy dining car on the Euronight express to Bucharest spurred Theroux to write: "At the sight of this filth and disorder, my spirits rose. . . I felt I was seeing the real thing, a place with its pants down."

Occasionally he will give the mean-spirited back of his hand to types he has long detested, such as Blimps and missionaries. Cliched they may be, but in Theroux' hands these encounters are still devastating. I wish I had been there when in Thailand he met an American, "tubby and short, duck-butted, about fifty or so, in black capri pants," working noisily on a baguette sandwich. She is a missionary from Missouri.

"Spreading the word?"
"You got it."
"Quoting Scripture?"
"'The letter killeth,'" I said. "Who said that?"
"Paul, Corinthians. 'The spirit giveth life.'"
"They have plenty of spirit."
"Not Christian spirit."
"Like they need lessons in piety in Thailand?" I said, my voice cracking with impatience. And I thought of all the Thais I'd seen bringing flowers and incense to temples, their crouching and their prostrations, their faces glowing in the light of candle flames, the special quality of their beauty when they were in the act of praying.
"They need Jesus."
"I took a deep breath and said, "What is it with you people?"
She just chewed defiantly.
"They need Almighty God."
I said, "If Almighty God had been an immense duck capable of emitting an eternal quack, we would all have been born web-footed, each as infallible as the pope -- and we would never have had to learn to swim" -- a quotation from Henry James's father that I find useful on these occasions.
More often Theroux takes surprising delight in the people he encounters. Some of them are writers -- he sought out Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul and Haruki Murayami in Tokyo, for instance. He offers, sometimes uncharitably, his views of the work of other travel writers, reliving his celebrated feud with V.S. Naipaul and reiterating his disdain for Bruce Chatwin's alleged fabrications.

He is at his best when encountering people ordinarily below the notice of most travelers. Now and then Theroux, who despite his perhaps studied crankiness is really a decent fellow, befriends rickshaw drivers, shopkeepers, prostitutes and other invisibles, sometimes with financial aid. He especially enjoys Indians, "good-humored and polite on the whole," although he is appalled by "the sheer mass of people, the horribly thronged cities, the colossal agglomeration of elbowing and contending Indians, the sight of them, the sense of their desperation and hunger . . . " He is devastated, because although he can and does help individuals out of their despair, he can do nothing about the masses.

Though he has almost nothing good to say about governments, European or Asian, Ghost Train is full of grace notes about people Theroux meets on the train and in the villages and cities. "If the military in Myanmar was odious, the people I met were soft-tempered and helpful, and it was perhaps the only country I passed through where I met nothing but generosity and kindness. And the Burmese were the most ill-treated, worst-governed, belittled, and persecuted of any people I met -- worse off than the Turkmen, which was saying a lot."

A few nations do win a bit of grudging approval, such as Vietnam, thriving and forgiving despite American attempts to bomb it back into the stone age, and Turkey, courageously trying to bridge the chasm between Western energy and Islamic piety.

Not the rest, none of them, and especially the authoritarian regimes. Reading Theroux's words during the week Putin savaged Georgia hit home: "In spite of all the talk of change and reform, [Russia] seemed exactly the same place as it had ever been: a pretentious empire with a cruel government that was helpless without secret police."

Ghost Train is probably the closest Theroux will ever come to autobiography. During the Bazaar trip, he confides, his first wife left him for another man, and the white-heat writing of that book afterward helped him through the pain. "I had not been missed," he admits. "I had been replaced."

Still Theroux does not wallow in the past. As the world changed -- and not for the better -- over the 30 years since Bazaar, so has he. In fact, he almost sounds content in his melancholy at the end of Ghost Train, although he entertains no illusions about today. Most of the world's far too many people are poor and brutalized, as the true traveler -- the one who keeps his eyes and mind open -- will always see. "The going is still good," he writes in the last line of this thoughtful and humane book.


  1. That's Haruki Murakami, not Murayami.

  2. Damn spell checker doesn't do Japanese names.

  3. I'm listening to the book on CD and wanted to capture the conversation with the "missionary." I thank you for having the dialogue on your site.

  4. Great, great book. I liked it when this English girl asks him " Would'nt you want to be Michael Palin?"
    The irony...