Click­ety- clack, the old trav­eller’s back

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Su­san Kuro­sawa Ghost Train to the East­ern Star By Paul Th­er­oux Hamish Hamil­ton, 496pp, $ 35

PAUL Th­er­oux is back­track­ing, re­trac­ing the route he took to write The Great Rail­way Bazaar. It’s more than three decades since that epic travel nar­ra­tive, which stands among the best of its genre. But the com­pli­cated jour­ney that spawned the orig­i­nal book re­sulted in loss and dis­lo­ca­tion, as Th­er­oux re­veals in this con­fes­sional fol­low- up.

On the eve of that solo out­ing in 1973, his then wife had asked Th­er­oux not to go. But he did, was hor­ri­bly home­sick for her and his chil­dren on the 41/ 2- month ex­pe­di­tion, catch­ing trains of all rack­ety sorts across Asia, and when he fi­nally got back to Lon­don his wife had taken a lover. ‘‘ How could you do this?’’ he howled at her. ‘‘ I pre­tended you were dead.’’ Much has hap­pened to our trav­eller in the in­ter­ven­ing years. He has emerged as ar­guably the finest travel au­thor of his gen­er­a­tion. Even his de­trac­tors, most of whom dis­miss him as grumpy and smug, would con­cede he is one of the most pro­lific and wide- rang­ing travel scribes, al­ways with a grand ex­pe­di­tion up his sleeve.

Th­ese crit­ics may scoff at Th­er­oux’s nos­tal­gia as he oc­cu­pies train com­part­ments of vary­ing com­fort and ef­fi­ciency through Europe and across the sub­con­ti­nent into South­east Asia, Ja­pan and Rus­sia. Even he ad­mits that not many peri­patetic writ­ers choose to go back.

‘‘ Gra­ham Greene never re­turned


the Liberian bush, nor to Mex­ico, nor to Viet­nam,’’ he writes. Sim­i­larly, Eric Newby did the Ganges but once and Joseph Con­rad ‘‘ ended up hat­ing the prospect of sea­far­ing’’. But Th­er­oux has al­ways loved the idea of tres­pass in all its per­mu­ta­tions, of travel as an act of dis­ap­pear­ance. And he’s dotty about trains; there’s real rel­ish in his de­scrip­tions of click­ety- clack jour­neys in his other train jour­nals, The Old Patag­o­nian Ex­press and ( in China) Rid­ing the Iron Rooster.

Th­er­oux clearly ap­pre­ci­ates the anonymity and pos­si­bil­i­ties of­fered by this rather un­fash­ion­able form of get­ting about. He likes to talk to peo­ple, to have con­ver­sa­tions with lo­cals, never tourists, whom he sees as ‘‘ li­censed bores’’; and trains, with their sense of con­ceal­ment and en­clo­sure, pro­mote un­guarded dis­course.

Th­er­oux con­tends that ‘‘ travel holds the mag­i­cal pos­si­bil­ity of rein­ven­tion’’ but what is re­mark­able is he doesn’t seem any older. Never the wide- eyed trav­eller, his writ­ing has al­ways been opin­ion­ated and he has an undimmed pen­chant for dis­com­fort; it’s al­ways eas­ier and more fun, of course, to write about dis­as­ter than to praise the per­fec­tion of one’s jour­neys.

But read­ers should never con­fuse his anger for pes­simism; his may be a soap­box stance but he is, at heart, a cu­ri­ous seeker of truths. Not for Th­er­oux the mea­sured tol­er­ance of old age: he’s still tear­ing to shreds the blighted coun­tries he passes through. ‘‘ The world is de­te­ri­o­rat­ing and shrink­ing to a ball of bun­gled deso­la­tion.’’

He con­tin­ues to jour­ney alone, record­ing what he sees and hears in a small note­book with ‘‘ a pre­ferred brand of ball­point pen’’. His is the metic­u­lous­ness of a re­searcher, im­part­ing to read­ers the telling de­tails we crave. Of Bu­dapest, he writes, ‘‘ The sight of the old pock­marked city of pud­dles, smutty un­der the snowmelt, Keleti Sta­tion loom­ing like a Hun­gar­ian mad­house in the rain, the slushy streets and muddy side­walks, de­frost­ing and drip­ping af­ter the long win­ter — all of it made me hope­ful.’’

While Bruce Chatwin re­ferred to him­self as a ‘‘ leaver- out of things’’, Th­er­oux is a ‘‘ put­terin’’. This is un­sur­pris­ing, given his suc­cess as a nov­el­ist and writer of vividly detailed short sto­ries. But we must be oc­ca­sion­ally scep­ti­cal about the ve­rac­ity of the search­ing con­ver­sa­tions he has with ran­dom rail trav­ellers in ru­ral re­gions who surely can’t speak per­fect English.

There’s no need for such scep­ti­cism when he meets fel­low travel au­thor Pico Iyer in his adopted home of Ky­oto. The two men talk and walk with ease as Th­er­oux en­vies Iyer’s slight build, his ‘‘ tak­ing up so lit­tle space’’. They speak of Chatwin, Red­mond O’Han­lon, Nor­man Lewis and fa­mous vagabonds, and it’s such a re­veal­ing scene, th­ese two chaps wan­der­ing about an an­cient Ja­panese city gen­tly gos­sip­ing and dis­sect­ing their peers.

‘‘ Don’t you think Jan Mor­ris was at her best when she was writ­ing for Rolling Stone in the ’ 80s?’’ Iyer asks. Of the eval­u­a­tion, Th­er­oux writes that he and Iyer as­signed points ‘‘ to those who trav­elled alone and wrote well, de­tract­ing points for at­ti­tude, pos­tur­ing, ly­ing, fic­tion­al­is­ing or be­ing blimp­ish’’.

This splen­did book of­fers a rare in­sight into a man who lost faith in his mar­riage af­ter The Great Rail­way Bazaar but still kept go­ing, rov­ing and record­ing, con­sol­i­dat­ing his high place in the realms of travel writ­ing. But be pre­pared for a bit­ter­sweet tone — ‘‘ Travel,’’ he con­cludes, ‘‘ is the sad­dest of plea­sures’’ — and an oc­ca­sional fret­ful­ness.

Here’s a man in his 60s still search­ing for big an­swers. And it’s a plea­sure, as ever, to join him, how­ever vi­car­i­ously, on his quest.

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