Paul Theroux's new book is a return to the rails, a partial retracing of rides he took as a much younger man writing one of his best–known titles. Michael Shapiro visits a bookstore owner in Cambodia—a character in the new book—and looks at the evolution in countries and people though the eyes of others.
An elephant and his mahout trundled along the banks of the Tonle Sap River, near the confluence with the Mekong. Tuk–tuks and scooters skittered along Sisowath Quay, past the graceful Royal Palace whose upturned eaves seem to reach for an unattainable heaven. A block away, on Samdach Sothearos Boulevard in Phnom Penh, I found Bohr's Books.
The owner, Chea Sopheap, spoke briefly of the terrors of war and Pol Pot's genocide that convulsed through Cambodia in the 1970s and '80s. "Everybody lose during that time. I lose two, one brother and one uncle." Compared to that hell, this is "heaven," he said. "Only the soldiers have guns."
Yet through it all, despite yesterday's terrors and today's poverty, Cambodians keep smiling. I mentioned to Mr Sopheap that the smiles seem genuine. "In Thailand and Vietnam they smile because they want something from you," he said. "Here we just smile."
Our talk turned to writers. "Paul Theroux, you know him?" asked Sopheap. "He visited me last year," the humble Cambodian bookseller told me. "And I'm going to be in his next book."
That book, just released by Houghton Mifflin, is Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: 28,000 Miles in Search of the Railway Bazaar. It's a retracing of Theroux's 1973 rail journey from his home in London to the heart of Asia. The book Theroux wrote after that voyage, 1975's The Great Railway Bazaar, redefined travel writing.
"I did not set out to give the narrative of my journey a new shape, but I certainly made a conscious effort to avoid everything I disliked in the typical travel book," Theroux told me when I interviewed him in 2004 for my book, A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives and Inspiration (Travelers' Tales).
"I wanted to avoid sightseeing, museum scrutiny, church–going, and the veneration of graveyards and monuments. And dialogue—travel books seldom had much," Theroux told me. "I wanted lots of voices."
That's precisely what Theroux gave us in Railway Bazaar. "I sought trains," he wrote. "I found passengers."
In Ghost Train, Theroux continues to shun monuments and seek out people, including famous writers—Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul, Haruki Murakami and Pico Iyer in Japan, and Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka just before he died—and ordinary people, like Mr. Sopheap, whom he meets during his peregrinations.
Theroux's work offers a primer for travel and writing: eschew luxury, talk to people and travel solo. By traveling alone, he strikes up conversations and has a remarkable ear for dialogue. When I interviewed him for A Sense of Place, Theroux said he doesn't use a tape recorder or take notes, but agrees with Jonathan Raban that a "trance–like state of memoriousness" (Raban's phrase) can help one recall dialogue. And he writes down notes as soon as the conversation is complete.
A Creepy Revenant from the Underworld
In Ghost Train's opening chapter, the cantankerous Theroux warms up with jabs at travel, "an elaborate bumming evasion", and travel writers: "Most travel writing takes the form of jumping to conclusions, and so most travel books are superfluous, the thinnest, most transparent monologuing … the lowest form of literary self–indulgence."
And then comes the theme to which Theroux returns time and again: the older traveler, especially this writer who's retracing a journey he took half as a lifetime ago, as a ghost: invisible, insubstantial, "a creepy revenant from the underworld."
Theroux notes that traveling in the footsteps of a famous writer has become a fad, "a glib, debunking effort for a shallower, younger, impressionable writer." He doesn't want his epic journey traversed by a novice—he wants to do it himself, not just to see what's happened to the places he visited 33 years earlier, but, equally important, to see what's happened to him.
Returning to London, his former home, Theroux relives the pain of his first journey: a souring marriage with a wife whose lover moves in while Theroux is away, and a return home to a family that has moved forward without him.
Theroux concealed his domestic agony in Railway Bazaar, (the reader's loss—this would have made it richer), but the book was a smashing success. Upon his return Theroux found he was an "outsider" in his own home, "a ghostly presence with my nose pressed against the window."
Decades later, Theroux returns to London and embarks on the Ghost Train trip on a typically raw, spectral day. He soon realizes that he can't go home again (and certainly wouldn't want to do so), but he can haunt the rails forever.
As the poor stepchild of the Orient Express lumbers out of Waterloo Station, Theroux is caught in a melancholy melange of memories, the dreams and ghosts of his past. The train chugs past his old haunts: the store where he bought his first color TV set, the scene of 1978 race riots, a cinema he'd gone to until it became a bingo hall.
"The chippie, the florist, the Chinese grocer," the mosaic of his past, flit by faster and faster and disappear into the ether. Theroux is grateful that this descent into his not–so–secret history is mercifully quick: "I was spared the deeper pain of looking closely at the past."
People Read This Guy?
Theroux can't follow the exact route of his earlier journey—Iran and Afghanistan have become too unsafe. This time he visits Cambodia, a country teeming with ghosts. He hadn't been able to visit Cambodia during the Railway Bazaar trip in the '70s and was pleased to get there for Ghost Train.
In Siem Reap, near Angkor Wat, he says "the ghostliness was present even in the sunniest parts of town." In Cambodia, he finds "poverty without squalor" and writes: "I was not prepared for people so poor to look so beautiful."
At Bohr's Books in Phnom Penh, Theroux finds a copy of one of his books and says to Mr. Sopheap, "People read this guy?" Then he shows him his license and Sopheap shrieks in recognition, "a gratifying reaction," Theroux writes.
Sopheap tells Theroux that his father survived the Khmer Rouge because he was a farmer: "He knew how to make sugar from palm trees" and thus was spared so he could contribute to "dessert day" a thrice monthly event when rice, the only food available, was sweetened to make a crude confection.
During my visit with Sopheap, I wondered if this man, who'd become worldly through literature, wanted to travel abroad. "I don't want to visit other country," he said. "I have to visit all the places in my country first." He asked my name and I explained (which he probably knew) that in the West, the given name is first and the family name follows. "Why is family name last?" he asked. "The family is born first; we come later."
I asked why his bookshop was called Bohr's. Sopheap told me it is named for the renowned physicist. I looked at him inquisitively. "I'm a physicist," he said, and then turned to welcome a customer who'd just entered his store.
Prince Charles the Travel Writer
Above all, Theroux is a keen observer. In Tblisi, Georgia, his antennae pick up stories of how, to show who's in control, the Russians halted the supply of natural gas during one of the coldest winters in recorded history. Working in a soup kitchen there he observes that everyone's welcome, even if they don't appear impoverished.
In India, he calls that country's economic "miracle" a crock, seeing only dehumanized, overworked laborers. In an upscale hotel, Theroux has a chance encounter with Prince Charles, who had written some of his observations in a journal that became public.
"What this proves was that though he may never be crowned king of Great Britain and Northern Ireland," Theroux writes, "he could still make a decent living as a travel writer with such breezy generalizations."
Theroux returns to the ghost theme in Burma. Arriving in Rangoon, he is shocked not by the unrelenting pace of change he's witnessed in other cities, but by the lack of change. He sees himself in the city's decrepitude: "I'm the same too, but aged—wearier, frailer, fractured … shabbier, spookier."
In Burma he meets a fellow ghost, a rickshaw driver with little hope for the future, who expects to die soon because he can't earn enough to feed himself. And he meets another kindred spirit there: a Korean monk traveling even more lightly than Theroux. His little satchel, smaller than a supermarket bag, holds all his worldly possessions.
On the train from Thailand to Malaysia, Theroux meets a young backpacker with a pen in his pocket who says he's "going nowhere." This reminds Theroux of his younger, enigmatic self. And then he sees "a doddery white man in a torn shirt" with "laces undone, his fly half unzipped" carrying a small duffle and hard of hearing.
"In a matter of years," Theroux writes, "that wandering old coot, the ghost whom no one noticed, would be me."
Theroux is often dismissed as a cranky complainer, but at his core he's simply honest. If he doesn't like someone, his description can be scathing, like that of the "hairy troglodytic woman" who emits "flutterblasts of hallitotic snores."
His honesty is what made Railway Bazaar groundbreaking. And this no–holds–barred candor continues to enliven Theroux's prose. When he's confronted by a long–haired beauty on a motorbike in Vietnam and asked, "You want boom boom," he says, "Yes I do," but then thinks of his wife, whom he calls Penelope after the faithful wife of Odysseus, and declines.
After I interviewed Theroux for A Sense of Place, readers and colleagues asked what he's like. Ironically, he was the only writer who declined to meet me—we did the interview by email.
At first he was gruff. When I asked: "Why have you chosen to live on Oahu and spend your summers near where you grew up in Cape Cod?" Theroux replied, "Why do I live in rural Hawaii from October to May, and on Cape Cod from June to September? Is this a serious question?"
I pushed back: "Oahu and Cape Cod are lovely places, but the world is full of lovely places, why these? I know you enjoy kayaking—is this why you live near the sea? Have you kept a place in Cape Cod because it's close to where you grew up—is it important for you to be close to your roots?"
And got an interesting answer: "I like being near where I grew up, especially in the summer," Theroux typed. "I know and love the weather. I could only live near the sea—not just for the boating and the swimming. There is something magical about marine sunlight. I also subscribe to the ancient Phoenician belief that a day spent on the sea is a day that is not deducted from your life."
A week after our email interview, I met Theroux at a book event at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club. After he scribbled his signature in all his books, I introduced myself. We spoke for about 10 minutes and he was genial and friendly, genuinely curious about my work and life.
A curmudgeon? I think not. Theroux can be downright sunny. As his journey nears its conclusion in Japan, he writes: "What was the greatest difference between then and now? … The greatest difference was in me. I had survived the long road that led to the present. I felt lucky, I felt grateful. I didn't want any more than this in travel, clattering through the tunnel; I didn't want another life. I had a book to read, a book to write, and enough solitude. Most of all, someone missed me and was waiting for me, someone I loved."
Michael Shapiro traveled to Cambodia in 2007 and volunteered at an orphanage in Phnom Penh. He's the author of A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration, a collection of interviews with Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson, Pico Iyer, Jan Morris, Tim Cahill, Isabel Allende, Simon Winchester and others. Shapiro's work appears in National Geographic Traveler, the Washington Post, New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle. His essay, "The Longest Day" appeared in The Best Travel Writing 2005.
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