Thursday, June 10, 2010

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. New York: Mariner Books, 2008. large paperback, 496 pps.

I've been engaged in reading as much Paul Theroux as I can get my hands on over the last several months and am now just pausing long enough to write the reviews. Ghost Train is the repeat of a trip which Theroux took as a younger man in The Great Railway Bazaar. He left from London (now on a second wife) and trained his way through to India (this time with a detour around Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan), The Far East, Japan, and back via Russia. He also had to take an occasional bus and a couple of plane flights. Along the way, Theroux mixes with the local folks, stays in hostels and hotels, and reads. As in his other accounts of his travels, Theroux has a gift of mixing history of a place with literary works and stories told by people he meets along the way.

Theroux is quick to point out what has changed and what hasn't. Several Indian cities have become meccas for IT, manufacturing, and call centers. The call centers themselves I found interesting. The Indians who work there take on American sounding names and are tutored extensively so that they "sound" like native speakers rather than like Indians. Often it is a college graduate making less than 4000 U.S.D. a year providing customer/tech support India relies on cheap labour in order to be competitive. In India, Theroux comes across many people who dislike Bush 43 especially in relation to the war over in the Middle East. There is abject poverty in India also which he describes without romance or rancor. There are bits also about Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism. There are riots and bombing in Ceylon. Over in Thailand, there is a movement among fundamentalist Moslems to establish their own country in the south. Everyone certainly seems to be fighting these days, that is for sure.

Theroux also recounts bits of history while he is visiting Myanmer (Burma), Cambodia, and Vietnam. The behind-the-scenes decisions of politicians (Bush 43, Nixon in particular) were a fascinating glimpse into some of the background behind military actions. He describes in detail his tour of the killing fields, the genocide commited upon the orders of Pol Pot and exactly who helped that corrupt murderer to attain and stay in power. India, China, and Russia all continue to support Pol Pot (each for their own reasons). Theroux also talks about Vietnam and how the Viennese are faring these days. Although he leaves out the prison terms being bantered around for such offenses as e-mailing a relative in the U.S.A. from an internet cafe, he does address the war in Vietnam quite well.

There are throngs of people in the larger cities in Japan. Theroux takes some time there to go cross country skiing in the less populated north and to enjoy the use of two bathhouses before setting off for a final train trek through Siberia and China back through Poland and Germany to England. On the trains themselves, berths (sleeping compartments) are almost always shared and food bought at train stations from the locals is usually safer than what is offered in the dining cars. There is a bit of reflection in this book not present in his earlier journey across Asia. I enjoyed in particular Theroux's musings on invisibility and ageing.

sapphoq reviews says: This book comes highly recommended to the armchair traveler who likes a true sense of place along with an interweaving of history and a sprinkling of literature.

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