Sunday, July 05, 2009

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux

Clumsy title but a great travel book by an author I've long admired. Thereoux is retracing a journey he took 33 years earlier and wrote about in The Great Railway Bazaar. He seems mellower this time around but his powers of observation are not diminished and he can be acerbic when it's merited. He casts a particularly cold eye on the autocratic regime in Singapore where free speech is not encouraged. Its leader Lee Kwan Yew, a cold and domineering control freak, gets a memorable bashing. Lee is the guy who famously backed the Chinese government after their massacre in TiananmenSquare. He's also good on the new India of call centres and IT wealth. However he flees that country in horror at the relentless tide of humanity that floods the cities and make every venture on foot a nightmare. Other things that stick in the mind were the bleakness of rural Russian life and the cultural vibrancy of Turkey.

What I like about Thereoux is the way he engages with the country through which he travels - he talks to the people he encounters on trains, he stays in cheap hotels where the real people go, and he eats what's available on railway platforms. The book has many incidental pleasures: rueful reflections on his earlier callow self, his spat with the monstrous V. S. Naipaul, compact descriptions of the politics and topography of the host of countries he traverses, and a colourful cast of characters met along the way.