Magazine article The Spectator

Stepping-Stones of His Past Self

Magazine article The Spectator

Stepping-Stones of His Past Self

Article excerpt

GHOS TRAIN TO THE EASTERN STAR by Paul Theroux Hamish Hamilton, £20, pp. 485, ISBN 9780241142530 £16.79 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

When Paul Theroux set off from Victoria Station in 1973 his plan was to cross Europe and Asia, taking as many trains as he needed to get him to Tokyo, returning on the Trans-Siberian Express. From the fourmonth journey came a travel book that was not quite what he intended: 'I sought trains.

I found passengers.'

The Great Railway Bazaar sold 1.5 million copies in 20 languages. Thirty-three years and 40-odd books later, Theroux -- 'twice as old as the person who had ridden those trains' -- set off again, travelling in his own footsteps to see how much he and the world had changed.

'Writing about travel, ' he says, 'has become a way of making sense of my life, the nearest I will come to an autobiography.' Theroux is not Thesiger or Thubron, venturing into the distant unknown, sinking himself into another culture. He's the curious outsider, the stroppy visitor asking personal questions, relishing the bizarre and welcoming the unexpected. Aboard the Euronight express to Bucharest he stumbles into the dining car to find three drunken conductors and a man with a bandaged hand blowing his nose on a rag and stirring a wok. He's the chef. 'At the sight of this filth and disorder my spirits rose.' Theroux's idea, as before, is to cross eastern Europe, India and Asia, but he faces deviations from the original route. When he last passed through Iran, portraits of the Shah 15 times life-size dominated station walls; now he is refused a visa. Afghanistan is a no-go area. Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers create difficulties. Plane-hops and buses are unavoidable.

The world has boiled and resettled since that first journey. The Soviet Union has collapsed, China risen. India is IT- affluent and optimistic, but the population explosion defeats Theroux: just too many people. He flees.

Memory is a ghost train, and through its windows he sees not only the landscape of the here and now but what has gone, some good, some bad. Vietnam, in flames then, has regained self-respect; the horrors of Cambodia lie in the past. Myanmar remains crushed under the heel of its generals.

Bazaar was sharp, funny, fizzing with a young man's energy and ego. Approaching man's span of three score and ten, Theroux sees the skull beneath the skin. He is mortified to recall his youthful complaints of discomfort in a world where cities burned and people died -- many, he repeatedly points out, as a result of American bombing. …

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