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'Ghost Train' Retraces Theroux's Past Journeys

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

In the early 1970s, a young author named Paul Theroux embarked on an adventurous voyage that proved envious in its literary yield. After rambling across much of Asia and Russia via local trains, Theroux penned a book about his travels. The Great Railway Bazaar sealed Theroux's literary reputation and cemented his commercial appeal.

The bestselling book was heralded as a new evolution of travel writing, an antidote to mass consumption of newly cheap, anonymous airline travel. Theroux would retain his love of writing about choo-choos. In 1979's The Old Patagonia Express and 1988's Riding The Iron Rooster, Theroux took readers railroading with him across Central America and South America, and through China.

Now a grand old man of letters with over 40 books in his wake, Theroux resolved to revisit the path he followed in that first groundbreaking book. Ghost Train to the Eastern Star isn't an exact replication (Theroux skips Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran this time around.)

He visits call centers in the formerly sleepy, now rapidly metastasizing Indian city of Bangalore. He considers the human rights abuses — past and present — in Cambodia, Myanmar and what we in the U.S. sometimes refer to as the "'stans" of central Asia. He glories in Istanbul: "A city with the soul of a village." And he immerses himself in conversation with tea sellers, Nobel prize winners, monks, businessmen and rickshaw drivers.

Theroux also indulges in a fair amount of soul searching. He reflects that "in some well-hidden part of the traveler's personality is an unpickable knot of vanity, presumption and mythomania bordering on the pathological."

Some critics have sourly agreed. Writing in The New York Times, Robert Macfarlane excoriated Ghost Train to the Eastern Star as smug, narcissistic and intellectually lazy. But gushing reviews in The Guardian, the London Independent and the San Francisco Chronicle praised the book as a tart, magisterial study of globalization, adaptation and human perseverance. Although most of the countries he moved through have witnessed staggering change over the past 33 years, Theroux ultimately concludes that "the greatest difference was in me."

This reading of Ghost Train to the Eastern Star took place in September 2008 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.