Sunday, November 23, 2008

Review: The Real & Imagined Road In Paul Theroux's 'Ghost Train To The Eastern Star'

One of the things that distinguishes Paul Theroux from most travel writers is that he takes the real and imagined road in his journeys, this time in Ghost Train To the Eastern Star, a recently published book retracing of his 25,000-mile odyssey through eastern Europe, central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Japan and Siberia in his classic The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), considered by some critics to be the best modern travel book.

About 90 pages into this 500-page book, Theroux finds himself in Azerbaijan because he can't get a visa to go by train from Turkey to Iran as he did on his original trip. But he finds the detour welcome because he can visit Baku, the setting of Ali and Nino, Kurban Said's love story of a
n Azerbaijani Muslim boy in love with a Georgian Christian girl on the eve of the Russian Revolution.

The topography of literature, the fact in fiction, Theroux writes:
Is one of my pleasures -- I mean, where the living road enters the pages of a book, and you are able to stroll along both the real and imagined road. A walking tour called something like 'Literary Landmarks' is not everyone's idea of fun, but it is mine, for the way it shows how imagination and landscape combine to become art: the Dublin pubs and streets mentioned in Ulysses, the railway in Anna Karenina, the towns on the Mississippi that are important in Huckleberry Finn, the marsh in Great Expectations, the Cairo streets that crisscross Palace Walk, the London of The Secret Agent, the Congo of Heart of Darkness, the Paris of Tropic of Capricorn. the Chicago of Augie March . . .
Some critics have bristled at "the unbridled narcissism" of Ghost Train, as one put it.

Theroux does dwell overly long early on about what a mess his life was when he set out on the trip that became The Great Railway Bazaar and how swell that life is now. And his rationalizations for making what is more or less the same trip all over again as "dangerous but irresistible, not as a search for lost time but for the grotesquerie of what happened since" seem like an overwrought hommage.

But if travel is about the progress of the soul, which it certainly has been through a lifetime of journey for me, then I give Theroux latitude in going not just up close in his wanderings, but personal, as well.

Herewith some excerpts from Ghost Train in that spirit as he travels his great circuitous route from west to east and back again:
Even at Waterloo, the reminders of my old London were almost immediate. The indifference of Londoners, their brisk way of walking, their fixed expressions, no one wearing a hat in the rain yet some carrying brollies -- all of us, including hinking public school hearties, striding past a gaunt young woman swaddled in dirty quilts, sitting on the wet floor at the foot of some metal steps at the railway station, begging.

* * * * *
Vienna for me was just its station and the very platform where Freud diagnosed his own Reisefieber -- the anxiety of traveling by rail. He was so fearful of missing a train, he would arrive at the station an hour early, and usually panicked when the train pulled in. Here I got another train, slightly shabby, probably Magyar, for the leg to Budapest, where we were to arrival at noon. Even the landscape was shabbier, flatter, the snow thinner and lying in filthy twists as we rumbled over the border at the Hungarian frontier of Gyor, which was a set of solid buildings dating from the time when this was one of the rusted folds in the Iron Curtain, factories and stubby fields, bare trees and the late-winter farmland scored with plow marks and skeletal with ribs of snow.

. . . Blackbirds streaked low across the winter sky over the thick Hungarian hills and ditches and brown copses that were all smeared with discolored snow like stale cake icing, the dark landscape of early morning in eastern Europe,jumping in the train window like the tortured frames of an old movie.

* * * * *
I find most cities nasty, but I can see that Istanbul is habitable, a city with the soul of a village. Unless there is a bomb in the bazaar, or a Kurd-related outrage, there is never news of Istanbul in the Western press. To say it is beautiful is so obvious as to be frivolous, yet the sight of its mosques and churches can be almost heart-stopping.

* * * * *
One of the pleasures of such a journey is walking across a border, strolling from one country to another, especially countries where there is no common language. Turkish is incomprehensible to Georgians, and Georgians boast that there is no language on earth that resembles Georgian; it is not in the Indo-European family but rather the Kartvelian, or South Caucasian, one. Georgians triumphantly point out that their language is unique, since the word for mother is deda and the word for father is mama.

* * * * *
On the trip to see the ruins, I asked about [Turkmenistani tyrant and madman Saparmyrat] Niyazov's passion for renaming. I was with two Turkmen -- a man I shall call Mamed, whose English was shaky, and a woman I shall call Gulnara, who was fluent.

The funny part was that although Mamed and Gulnara had read about the renamings, there were so many changes they couldn't keep them straight.

"January is now Turkmenbashi," Gulnara said. "He named the first month after himself. Ha! February is Bayderk -- the flag. March is Nowruz. April is Gurbansultan-ezhe -- his mother, June is Oguz -- our hero. But May is -- what is May?"

Mamed said, "May is Sanjar."

"No, that's November."

"Are you sure?"

"I know September is Rukhnama," Gulnara said. "What do you think, Paul?"

I said, "It's every writer's dream to have a month named after his book."

* * * * *
Welcome to India and the proof that, as Borges once wrote, "India is larger than the world." On the surface, nothing had changed in Amritsar. From what I could gather, the country was no different from what I had seen three decades before. This prospect delighted me.

* * * * *
I stumbled into Colombo on my birthday. The winsome hotel clerk in the crimson sari knew this somehow. She said, "Happy birthday, sir. Please call us if you want us to come up and sing to you." That "us" made the offer sound either wickeder or more chaste.

To give the day a meaning I went for a walk, marveling at how thinly populated the city was compared to the ones I'd just left in India. The entire population of the Republic of Sri Lanka was the same as the population of the city of Mumbai: twenty million. And the placid and procrastinating Sinhalese were a reminder of how frenzied and loquacious the Indians had been, forever vexed and talkative.

* * * * *
My first reaction to Rangoon, now a sad and skeletal city renamed Yangon, was disbelief. The unreality of arriving in a distant modernized city cannot compare with the unreality of seeing one that has hardly changed at all. If a place, after decades, is the same, or worse than before, it is almost shaming to behold. Like a prayer you regret has been answered, it exists as a mirror image of yourself, the traveler, who has to admit: I'm the same too, but aged -- wearier, frailer, fractured, abused, weaker, shabbier, spookier. There was a human pathos in a city that had faded in the years I'd been away, something more elderly, almost senile. So, adrift in the futility of being in a foreign city, woozy in the stifling heat, I fitted right in. After a day or so I took a horrid pleasure in being here, back in time, in a place I had remembered and had once mocked with youthful satire, a ghost town that made me feel old and ghostly.

* * * * *
Deep in the jungle at Ta Prohm Temple, along the narrow grassy path, a whole orchestra of [Cambodian] land mind victims played music on gongs and flutes and stringed instruments -- music that tore at my heart, for its beauty and for its being played by blind men, and one-legged men, and men with missing fingers or burned and bandaged arms. With their prosthetic legs neatly stacked to the side, their twanging music rose in counterpoint to the forest screech, the ringing whine of cicadas, the loud peeping of insects, the squealing of bats.

* * * * *
Even during the war, when I had traveled here, I had thought that if Vietnam hadn't been so beautiful we would not have ravished it, nor would the French had bothered to colonize and plunder it. Its cool, steep, humped-up mountains and jungle-thick valleys and cloud forests sloped past fertile fields to the coastal heat of palmy, white sand beaches; its people were graceful and hard-working and willing; the warmth of its tropical enveloping climate made it seem a kind of Eden. Of course foreigners wanted to possess the land and its people, even if it meant bombing them to smithereens. But the Vietnamese were tenacious and self-possessed and had triumphed.

Up to this point I had not seen Hanoi, which was as stately as a precinct of Paris, as it was meant to be when it was the capital of French Indochina. The French had been humiliated in battle, had surrendered by the thousands, had been taken captive, and driven out; but at least they had left long boulevards of imposing buildings behind. And we had left nothing except a multitude of scars and the trauma of the whole miserable business, ten years of terror and seven million tons of bombs.

* * * * *
We had gone sixty or more miles into the snow-covered pine forest of Chusovskoy Oblast [in Siberia], the snow blowing across the road in some places, the wind creating sharply pleated drifts. It was another vast but over-simple black-and-white landscape, beautiful and terrifying in its starkness. Just the way the snow danced in the headlights, swirling and funneling in the gusts, took my attention away from the stories of betrayal. I tried to imagine being a prisoner in this storm, on foot or in the back of a locked truck. There had been millions. Everything that made this place lovely for me, for a prisoner meant only death.
Theroux eventually is back in England where he began his travels, and as his train hurtles through the Kent countryside toward London he writes at the end of his day's notes the one word, Done, after concluding that:
It's true that travel is the saddest of pleasures, the long-distance overland blues. But I also thought what I'd kept fretting about throughout my trip, like a mantra of vexation building in my head, words I never wrote. Most people on earth are poor. Most places are blighted and nothing will stop the blight getting worse. Travel gives you glimpses of the past and the future, your own and other people's. "I am a native in this world," aspiring to be the Man with the Blue Guitar. But there are too many people and an enormous number of them spend their hungry days thinking about America as the Mother Ship. I could be a happy Thai, but there is no life on earth that I am less suited to living than that of an Indian, rich or poor. Most of the world is worsening, shrinking to a ball of bungled desolation. Only the old can really see how gracelessly the world is aging and all that we have lost. Politicians are always inferior to their citizens. No one on earth is well governed. Is there hope? Yes. Most people I'd met, in chance encounters, were strangers who helped me on my way. And we lucky ghosts can travel wherever we want. The going is still good, because arrivals are departures.
Image: "Train" by Nicholas Mocan

No comments: