“A sign on one tree said, THE KILLING TREE AGAINST WHICH EXECUTIONERS BEAT CHILDREN – and it explained that these children, the offspring of the despised privileged class of doctors, lawyers and teachers, were swung by their heels and their skulls smashed against the tree”
I looked up, into the blue sky. Around me were families with children playing, couples strolling, tourists posing for photos in front of Tower Bridge. The book hung from my hands, as if it had not realised it had been discarded. It nearly was. This was the most horrific thing I had read since a scene in Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat. Long after I have forgotten the passage, I will always remember the jolted feeling I got when I read it.
But how could I complain. I was reading Ghost Train to the Eastern Star because I love Paul Theroux when he’s travelling. Perhaps more so now he’s older, slightly more grouchy, but still determined to see a country from his own perspective. Cambodia was part of that trip and Theroux is not one to shy away from peering under a country’s carpet.
Despite retracing his route from the Great Railway Bazaar there were some new countries, others that were no longer safe or possible. His descriptions are as prosiac as they are practical and I am used to them, I draw comfort from Theroux’s monologue, from the way he reveals what he wrote in his notebook, his insistence on seeing the seedy side to each society, his revelling in the pleasure of travel for the journey itself rather than the destination. Even now his trip is one that inspires me, and pulls me away from my longing to travel down Central and South America.
Like the railway bazaar I found myself flicking back to the front to check the map, partly because my geography anywhere east of Greece is pretty crap, and partly to make sure I wasn’t near the end.
From his seemingly insatiable, almost childlike, interest in Turkmenbashi, his heartwarming delight at being fondly remembered in Pyin-Oo-Lwin, his unease at the skewed growth of India and it’s teeming masses that prompts him to start a story while travelling. There seems to be a level of honesty with Theroux’s travel writing, he reveals if he doesn’t like somewhere and wants to leave, and if he enjoys somewhere and starts “to consider every spot as the possible site of a house” as he quotes from Henry T.
There are a few points where he reveals to people that he is the author of the book they are reading or are selling, and their reaction. He constantly talks to people, asking them questions,teasing information out of them that allows him to paint his own interpretation of the place.
“Travel is at its most rewarding when it ceases to be about your reaching a destination and becomes indistinguishable from living your life”
One of the highlights are Threoux’s interactions with other authors, and in Japan he meets up with Pico Iyer and Haruki Murakami. Whilst the conversation with Murakami was a highlight, my favourite travel author and one of my current favourite authors in the same book, it is the fact that Murakami himself is like a ghost in Japan, not recognised even in his home country that makes the passage even more intriguing. However the couple of days that are spent with Pico are fascinating, as the two authors converse while sightseeing, before discussing other authors and opinions on their books.
The return leg is painted far more pleasantly than the original journey, indeed Theroux alludes back to his personal situation at the time as he slowly became more unhinged on the Trans Siberian Express. This time it is a more pleasant journey, barring his stopover in Perm, where he visits the Perm 36 Gulag. There are no vodka drinking sessions this time, only reflection brought on by the endless expanse of snow and note taking and story writing in his plush train compartment.
The narrative takes us right back into the Garden of England and as the last page was turned I find myself wandering if and where Theroux will go next, and if he has convinced me enough to take the great railway bazaar myself.