Two-for-One Review: “The Great Railway Bazaar” and “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star”

January 15, 2009 at 1:00 am | Posted in Nonfiction, Two-for-One Review | 1 Comment

Paul Theroux has done something novel.  He has written a travelogue based on retracing his route from a travelogue he wrote three decades earlier.  Reading both of these together is fascinating on multiple levels.

The Great Railway Bazaar is full to the brim with Asia and with the irascible Theroux, his cigars, and his alcoholic benders.  It’s worth picking it up just to see the author photo, with those 70s sideburns, the checked jacket, and the paisley tie.  The Great Railway Bazaar probably touched off the trend of accurate, rather than romantic, travel writing, and it’s interesting for that.  It can also be read as an elegy for a vanished world, including Yugoslavia, Anatolia, Ceylon, Burma, and the USSR, as well as Theroux’s adored railroads.  Of course, if you’d like to read Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, this earlier work, while not essential to understanding, serves as a strong basis for comparison between the two worlds and the two Therouxes, young and old.

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star is a rewarding read.  Theroux has aged well, though he still comes across as a crusty old curmudgeon and he still likes to get soused.  There are some great comic moments when he meets people who have read one of his books but don’t recognize him.  He seems to have found peace with some spiritual issues, and I very much enjoyed reading his various attempts at charity.  Much more than his constant semi-dalliances:  we can’t tell whether he just likes to chat with prostitutes or if there’s more going on, and frankly we don’t want to know.  In Ghost Train we pick up bits of the back story behind Railway Bazaar.  The older Theroux is more thoughtful, more patient, and a better writer.  Ghost Train also touches more explicitly on politics and globalization.  It’s a great read and a great way to learn about places you might never see, like Turkmenistan.

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  1. What a neat idea!

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