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09.17.08

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Phaedra

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

Reviewed by Michael S. Gant


Ignoring his own warning that no good travel writer ever "backtracked to take the great trip again," Paul Theroux conjures up an excuse for retracing the steps of his famous trekking tale The Great Railway Bazaar (published in 1975): the author supposes that doing so might reveal "a different place, with ominous changes," and, more practically, "a new book." Beginning in London, Theroux rode the rails through Europe to Turkey, across the "stans" of the Caucasus, into India and Southeast Asia, up through China and then across Siberia—avoiding hot spots like Afghanistan and Iran. As cranky as ever (Theroux's books make wonderful traveling companions; the man himself would drive you crazy in a sleeper compartment), he recalls his previous marital difficulties and hints darkly at current strains in his relationships. He starts in a bleak mood ("the rain descending like a burden") and ends by complaining about a Japanese cybercafe. In between, Theroux finds plenty to worry about—the places he travels through have, for the most part, gotten worse, not better, during the intervening 30-plus years; of Bangalore he writes, "The place had not evolved: it had been crudely transformed—less city planning than the urban equivalent of botched cosmetic surgery." Outrun by the headlines, Theroux's description of the wacky late dictator Turkmenbashi of Turmenistan is already out of date. He does, however, catch a whiff of the troubles to come in Georgia: after the Russians cut off natural gas supplies, "Georgia was reminded of its vulnerability, its poverty, its desperation, its dependence on Russia." Theroux is prone to generalizations ("The odor of humanity, which is also an odor of death"), egotism (he notes how many editions of his books can be found in remote locations) and hobbyhorses (he's obsessed with Japan's obsession with manga porn), but he is also an intrepid observer; at one point, he finds himself picking his way "across the weeds and stones in the no man's land between two frontiers, from dismal Farap in Turkmenistan to dismal Jalkym in Uzbekistan." Finally, the book, once again, fulfills Theroux's most trenchant observation: "Travel is at its most rewarding when it ceases to be about your reaching a destination and becomes indistinguishable from living your life." (By Paul Theroux; Houghton Mifflin; 496 pages; $28 hardback)


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