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Embrace of strangers

<strong>Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of "The Great Railway Bazaar"</strong>


It's an easy title - In the Footsteps of . . . - and many famous writers have suffered the treatment. The only way to upstage a young pretender seeking to write in your footsteps is to do it yourself. So, rather than leave the field to "opportunistic punks", Paul Theroux retraces his own steps, first taken more than 30 years ago in The Great Railway Bazaar, the travel book that begat a genre.

Bazaar was a young man's book, zestful, questioning, importunate and light on learning. Ghost Train is an old man's book, trading on a lifetime of travel, fiction writing and reflection. It is at once less exciting and more satisfying, though probably more so if you are of Theroux's age, as I am, and have been to many of the same places, as I have.

However, the places are not the heroes of this book. The people are, the "embrace of strangers". The old man on the night train from Ashgabat to Mary. Mr Kumara, the amateur palmist on the slow train to Kandy. The nameless shrew of a journalist on the night train to Jaipur. Tapa Snim, the Korean monk on the Ghost Train to Mandalay. They all provide strange little dramas as the "aged, spookier" traveller takes a sentimental journey to his past. And they have a function: "waiting for me to assign them parts in a bigger story". In India, he goes about "casting strangers for roles in my narrative".

Inevitably, that story is about Theroux. As he conceded in a recent radio interview, this is the nearest he will get to writing an autobiography. It is brutally frank. He returned from four months of travelling in 1974 to find that his wife had taken a lover. He howled, "How could you?" with self-righteous indignation (he was just as guilty); she told him, "I pretended you were dead." Writing Bazaar was his catharsis. Concealing his domestic turmoil, he wrote a jolly book, "and like most jolly books it was written in an agony of suffering, with the regret that in taking the trip I had lost what I valued most: my children, my wife, my happy household".

Thirty-three years later, he returns to London from Hawaii to make the same trip, reliving much of the pain he thinks he has forgotten. That is an intermittent theme, returning to The roux time and again as he tries to sleep in yet another foul-smelling compartment shared with strangers. Ghost Train is a less jolly book (nobody gets "duffilled" - left behind - this time) but better for it. He still abjures museums, but he offers startlingly honest and critical accounts of places of which he disapproves: Turkmenistan under the mad dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, Singapore under the fake-benevolent regime of Lee Kuan Yew, the killing fields of Cambodia and Vietnam after America's dirty war.

And always there are the people. Some of them are fellow writers, with whom he takes a branch line from the narrative. In Istanbul, there is Orhan Pamuk, who talks about Theroux's "very affectionate" book on V S Naipaul, and writers' mistresses. In Tokyo, there is Haruki Murakami, who is never on TV, and so can wander the subway, about which he wrote Underground, the story of the 1995 sarin attack by Japanese cult followers. In Nara, there is Pico Iyer, with whom he chats about most things under the sun.

These agreeable encounters would not have been possible three decades earlier, when he was unknown. On his return journey, he has the satisfaction not merely of meeting fellow writers, but of seeing his books on sale in the most obscure Asian cities and, once, on the night train to Hat Yai in Thailand, of seeing a young British woman reading The Mosquito Coast. He introduces himself as the author and, rather to his chagrin, she replies: "So I guess - what? - writing's your hobby?" A long way to go for a put-down, but at least he records it, along with the frustrations of travel and the happy hours of repose (few enough, in all conscience), as well as his impressions of a world changed utterly, and for the worse, by technology and the omnipresent search for money.

Still, the IT revolution does allow him to take a BlackBerry to keep in touch - most of the time - with his second wife, who sits at home knitting like Penelope. Travelling the Bazaar, he was out of contact for weeks at a time, creating the space for the man who stole his life. What, I wonder, would we have had if Theroux had possessed a satphone all those years ago? There would have been a book, but would it have been Bazaar, which changed travel writing and spawned a thousand imitators?

Certainly, we would not have had Ghost Train, and its melancholic conclusion: "Most of the world is worsening, shrinking to a ball of desolation. Only the old can really see how gracelessly the world is ageing and all that we have lost. Politicians and policemen are always inferior to their citizens. No one on earth is well governed." But is there hope? Yes, because strangers usually help, ghosts can travel and the going is still good.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, My year with Obama