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Sunday, Oct. 19, 2008

Paul Theroux backtracks through the world


By STEPHEN MANSFIELD
GHOST TRAIN TO THE EASTERN STAR: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar, by Paul Theroux. Hamish Hamilton, 2008, 496 pp., £20 (cloth)

Books about traveling in other people's footsteps are commonplace. We have Lesley Downer's "On the Road to the Deep North" and Patrick Symmes' motorbike journey through South America, "Chasing Che," just to name two. To travel in your own footsteps rather than the journeys of the dead is rare, but this is precisely what Paul Theroux does in his new book. At the age of 66, 33 years after undertaking the journey that led to his travelogue "The Great Railway Bazaar," he boards a train in London, disembarks in Japan and returns on the Trans-Siberian railway.

Theroux is happy to travel in hard-seat class carriages, share his space with strangers, and grub for food along the line, knowing that, as he puts it, "Luxury spoils and infantilizes you and prevents you from knowing the world." In this respect Theroux is like Robert L. Stevenson, choosing the flint-covered road because he knows there are dividends for a writer in the bruising business of rubbing up against the world.

In Eastern Europe he finds fleapit cities with lines of people traveling to the West for work. As he moves further East the contrasts become starker: the glistening railway lines of Western Europe, the buckled, arthritic rolling stock of Central Asia.

Turkey he finds, has vastly improved with time. Despite all the hype over the New India, he finds little change. Beyond the concentrated cores of wealth, Theroux sees "the India of the hut, the cow-dung fire, the bean field, the buffalo, the ox cart, and the bicycle — of debt and drought and death." He enjoys the company of Indians though, who are great storytellers, monologuists, and very disquisitional in their manner.

Travel writers are rarely as maligned as novelists. Paul Theroux may be the exception. One writer, Bruce Roscoe, even devoted a whole chapter of his book "Windows on Japan," to proving, quite convincingly, how much Theroux detests the Japanese. Theroux's new work may go some way to appeasing his critics.

He even has a few kind words for the Japanese this time round, though his discomfort lingers. A "Nipponized future," characterized by "an almost robotic obedience, decorum, rigidity," may be in store for all of us who live in megacities he notes, after arriving in Tokyo and thoroughly disliking it. To be fair, his antipathy to Tokyo applies to all megacities. In snowy Wakkanai in Hokkaido, he finds cozy bars, fresh air and friendly people.

One of the rewards of reading Theroux is that he reminds us how rich and plumy the English language is. In this travel account I found words I knew, but had somehow forgotten: bibulous, propinquity, risible, inspissated, orotund. Another pleasure of Theroux's travel books is the conversations he strikes up with fellow passengers and the writers he meets passing through. On this journey he meets resident writers Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak in Turkey, the late Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka, Haruki Murakami and Pico Iyer in Japan.

Theroux's new work is a brave book. How many of us after all, would want to face up to the deformed landscapes of 33 years ago or undertake a journey from youth to old age, from unblemished skin and glowing health, to crow's feet and gout. Being older, mellow, is not synonymous, however, with having gummed up eyes and ears. Theroux remains as sharp as ever.

Questioning his own reasons for travel, the response comes unbidden: He explores the world in this way because he has itchy feet and, best of all, because movement frees up the mind.



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