Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: 28,000 Miles in Search of the Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I enjoyed this book, but I wonder if I'd enjoyed it more or less if I'd read The Great Railway Bazaar (whose train journey he retraces 30 years later in this book) first. What was interesting (in a meta-literary way) is to see the seeds of The Elephanta Suite being sowed during the India part of his trip and how he can focus primarily on the train itself for so long and still keep you hooked through a succession of ever drearier train stations, crippling poverty and dodgy checkpoints.
The real beauty in Paul Theroux's writing is when there is sympathy and disgust with what he sees but almost no romance, and despite his mooning over the foibles of his previous trip during which his marriage fell apart and he questioned the whole meaning of what he was doing, and the occasional bout of self-celebration, this book saw thing through a pretty clear lens. For instance, it bums him completely out to discover he has arrived at a place during a big festival, because it means the shops will be closed, everyone will be either absent or abnormally excited; he seeks the truth of everyday experience.
The best part, the must-read chapter in here, is the firsthand account of the bizarre form of totalitarianism that went/goes down in Turkmenistan, where citizens are forced to smile all the time and hang on every word of their megalomaniac leader Turkmenbashi. I really wish he would write an entire book about that place.
The thing that was a bit of a letdown is how he meticulously got from London to Tokyo in 300 pages, but pretty much glossed through the return visit on the Trans-Siberian Railway going back, though truthfully, by the time he got to Japan, I was ready for this trip to be over. Perhaps there is a great novel being extruded about that leg of the trip.
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