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the Complete Review
the complete review - travel

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

Paul Theroux

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To purchase Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

Title: Ghost Train to the Eastern Star
Author: Paul Theroux
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2008
Length: 496 pages
Availability: Ghost Train to the Eastern Star - US
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star - UK
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star - Canada
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star - India
  • On the Tracks of The Great Railway Bazaar

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Our Assessment:

B+ : as entertaining as usual

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 6/10/2008 Michael Shmith
Christian Science Monitor . 20/8/2008 Matt Shaer
The Guardian A 13/9/2008 Sara Wheeler
The Independent . 12/9/2008 Julian Evans
The LA Times . 20/8/2008 Tim Rutten
New Statesman . 16/10/2008 Paul Routledge
The NY Times . 21/8/2008 Jennifer Schuessler
The NY Times Book Rev. D 22/8/2008 Robert Macfarlane
The Observer . 21/9/2008 Stephen Smith
San Francisco Chronicle . 6/8/2008 Peter Lewis
The Spectator . 10/9/2008 Lee Langley
Sunday Times . 7/9/2008 Patrick French
The Telegraph . 12/9/2008 Jason Webster
The Telegraph . 13/9/2008 Michael Kerr
TLS . 12/11/2008 Toby Lichtig
The Washington Post B- 28/9/2008 William Dalrymple

  Review Consensus:

  Not quite a consensus: many quite favourable, but a few not liking his attitudes at all

  From the Reviews:
  • "That Ghost Train fails to be quite so jolly, and not even of potential-classic status (it is standard, rather than first-class), is also because Theroux is himself 33 years older -- just as observant and often as eloquent, but without the zestful energy of his former self to lend that irresistible sense of first-time wonderment to his travels." - Michael Shmith, The Age

  • "As in The Great Railway Bazaar, Theroux’s skill lies not in mere aesthetic awareness, although each impression, as his train groans into Singapore, or Turkmenistan, is writ large, in a language both florid and erudite. He is a cultural raconteur nonpareil" - Matt Shaer, Christian Science Monitor

  • "India (87 pages) and Japan (56 pages) receive the most attention, but as in his best travel books (The Old Patagonian Express, for example, and the African odyssey Dark Star Safari), the brilliance lies in the author's ability to create a broad sweep of many countries -- a sequence of close-up shots that form a semi-global panorama. (...) Theroux is a fabulously good writer with an almost perfect ear for the rhythm of his prose. (...) Funny, informative and lyrical, this is a portrait of half the world in light and shade by a writer who still cannot be challenged in the field he reinvented." - Sara Wheeler, The Guardian

  • "His account's one oddity is its unselectiveness, almost every kilometre recorded. (...) Yet for his spartan love, as a traveller, for the aesthetic of trains and slowness, for his inquisitiveness and fluency, for his sympathy and sadness at the world's degradation and transformation, this ranks as one of his most human books. My final reaction was to have enjoyed it as a kind of wise commonplace book." - Julian Evans, The Independent

  • "What's really remarkable about Ghost Train to the Eastern Star is how much it reveals about Theroux the writer in precisely the way that self-regarding passage suggests." - Tim Rutten, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Bazaar was a young man's book, zestful, questioning, importunate and light on learning. Ghost Train is an old man's book, trading on a lifetime of travel, fiction writing and reflection. It is at once less exciting and more satisfying, though probably more so if you are of Theroux's age, as I am, and have been to many of the same places, as I have." - Paul Routledge, New Statesman

  • "Mr. Theroux peeks into plenty of brothels and rejoices in the enduring unspeakability of many of the world’s toilets, but on the whole the book reveals less about the naked reality of the world than the slackened curiosity of the author. (...) Mr. Theroux’s scribbling does yield some nice moments of dehumidified wit and snow-dusted nostalgic repose. But too often he displays little more than a hurried, irritable interest in the places he visits, especially if they have the nerve to have embraced "meretricious modernity." " - Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Times

  • "It’s the kind of project that only a man secure in his own self-esteem could undertake: an auto-pilgrimage, a grand­homme’s homage to, well, himself. But then Theroux has never been overburdened by modesty. Although he has claimed that a prerequisite of traveling responsibly is avoiding arrogance, his previous travelogues have all been pungent with self-regard. Ghost Train is no different. (...) Most of these generalizations are intellectually intolerable, some are banalities masquerading as profundities and a few just fail to make sense (.....) Such tossed-off one-liners are risible in isolation, but in sum they suggest a systemic laziness of thought. This impression is confirmed by Theroux’s repeated tendency to repetition." - Robert Macfarlane, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Ghost Train is readable and vivid. Theroux has still got it. He's a long way from raging against the dying of the light, though he might need to go to Specsavers more often these days. There's a sense of the author in his pomp, and at the same time at ease with himself, in a chummy encounter he has in India with Prince Charles" - Stephen Smith , The Observer

  • "A wicked acerbity remains one of his strengths (though now there is a woman at home who loves and misses him); this, plus his uncanny eye for the big picture, knack for description and talent for turning his experiences into stories." - Peter Lewis, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "At his best, Theroux is a dazzler, giving us the highs and lows of his journey with tenderness and acerbic humour." - Lee Langley, The Spectator

  • "Throughout the book, Theroux undercuts himself with rough humour and irony (.....) There is something surprisingly tender about the later sections of Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. After the stops and starts, the digressions and funny conversations, we are left with a writer leaving middle age and looking into the approaching distance. Theroux does so with a practical knowledge of the remoter countries of the world that is rare." - Patrick French, Sunday Times

  • "Fans of Theroux are not likely to be disappointed by this follow-up to the original book. The pace is more meditative, but it is structured around the usual well-tested formula: a combination of evocative description, innumerable quotes and literary references, frequent contact with the sex workers of the countries he visits and meetings with the great and the good." - Jason Webster, The Telegraph

  • "My paperback edition of The Great Railway Bazaar runs to 379 pages; the follow-up hardback has 485. That's a lot of space to fill when apparently greater changes have occurred in the writer than in the world (and when China has been dismissed in a page and a half). The explanation is prose that's as padded as the train seats." - Michael Kerr, The Telegraph

  • "He is brashly nosy, bluntly sure, and frequently allows his personality to take precedence in his narrative. This is, of course, what makes him an excellent travel writer; but it can also grate. (...) Paul Theroux is chiefly interested in the fluidity of human life, and one gets the feeling that he could write about the same journey for a third time and not be boring. He moves about, looks around him and tells us what he sees and feels. Few do it better." - Toby Lichtig, Times Literary Supplement

  • "At his best, Theroux is still an addictively engaging writer, endlessly curious and perceptive, hardy, chatty and sometimes very funny. (...) The trouble is that these high points are few and far between, and through much of the book there is a strong feeling that Theroux's heart is not really in it." - William Dalrymple, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Paul Theroux does not seem to begin his book -- an account of his latest continents-crossing foray -- particularly invitingly, claiming already on the first page:

     Most writing about travel takes the form of jumping to conclusions, and so most travel books are superfluous, the thinnest, most transparent monologuing. Little better than a license to bore, travel writing is the lowest form of literary self-indulgence: dishonest complaining, creative mendacity, pointless heroics, and chronic posturing, much of it distorted with Munchausen syndrome.
       It's hard to get more dismissive than that -- and yet it's exactly this tone that makes the reader eager to read on. But Theroux isn't finished with undermining his project, which in this case involves (more or less) retracing the route of his first phenomenal success, The Great Railway Bazaar. He asks rhetorically:
     What traveler backtracked to take the great trip again ? None of the good ones that I know.
       But that is what he has set out to do: repeat the trip he took more than three decades earlier. In fact, he can't retrace it that closely -- he doesn't get a visa for Iran, for one, and find the conditions in Afghanistan just a little too dangerous to venture back there. But there is enough overlap for comparison -- and no harm in taking in a few new places, such as the little-visited former Soviet Central Asian states (the 'Stans') or crossing Cambodia, which he hadn't been able to back in Pol Pot's day.
       Theroux famously prefers to travel by train:
The train offers the truth of a place: horrible or savage as it may seem, the hinterland is also the present.
       It's a gross oversimplification, of course: cutting through countries, trains play different roles in different places, and as often as not are as far removed from the country proper as a highway or an overland flight. Theroux also complains about luxury travel -- "luxury is the enemy of observation, a costly indulgence that induces such good feeling that you notice nothing" -- yet whenever possible he upgrades his train ticket to a higher class; it may not be luxury, but he still seems eager for as much comfort as possible. He also stays in some fine hotels, and mixes with better-heeled crowds along the way, giving the odd lecture and the like.
       There are many common-man encounters, but he also seeks out some big names -- Orhan Pamuk (just before he won the Nobel), whose Istanbul he greatly admires, Murakami Haruki, Arthur C. Clarke. And there's a reminder of his place in the brotherhood of travel-writers, as in the amusing exchange with fellow-traveller Pico Iyer:
"The thing that bothers me is that Chatwin never traveled alone."
       "Jan does."
       "So does Jonathan."
       "But Redmond doesn't."
       "Naipaul never did."
       Among the more interesting chapters are those on the places he is not familiar with, especially the bizarre fiefdoms that are the Central Asian republics. But even the places he knew have changed -- India, in particular -- with only Burma (Myanmar) stuck in its bizarre time-warp. Theroux is bothered by how Burma is held back, but obviously also pleased to step back into a familiar world. India, on the other hand, is an overcrowded nightmare -- leading to observations such as:
It was strange: as Indian cities underwent name changes -- Bombay to Mumbai, Madras to Chennai -- their character seemed to change too, as though they no longer had to live up to that old genteel image and could become nightmarish in new ways.
       There are a few museum visits and similarly touristy activity, but relatively little -- with Theroux more interested in the historical (Pol Pot's legacy, the American legacy in Viet Nam) than for example the local art. Sex is unavoidable, and he does detour at the occasional sex shop (dragging Murakami along with him in Tokyo):
Acting on my theory that a country's pornography offers the quickest insight into the culture and inner life of a nation, and especially the male character, I went in and assessed the goods.
       He argues -- in Budapest:
Pornography is specific, particular in its rituals and images, and it can't be gratuitous or faked or cooked up for its shock value, or else it won't sell. Shelves of videocassettes and DVDs of bestiality -- women canoodling with dogs and horses, pigs and goats -- meant there was a market for it.
       Elsewhere, of course, the market is geared towards prostitution, especially for tourist-customers, and Theroux reports being constantly accosted and offered up the goods. Occasionally he'll pay a girl but just wants to talk to them -- something that arouses considerably more suspicion than if he just accepted the usual services.
       It's a somewhat slapdash account -- surprising, given the amount of time he is on the road (well, the tracks, and in the air) --, nearly five hundred pages that breeze by oddly quickly. Theroux expertly dishes up the conversations and encounters, and there are pointed observations galore, but it often feels a bit rushed, as if he wants to get it over with. There are places he is relatively indifferent to, where he gets even more impatient. He also doesn't take the whole retracing-the-past too seriously, which is too bad, because some of the best sections are when he finds himself in familiar spots -- in Burma, for example, but also in Singapore, where he taught decades ago and where they still hold his portrait of the city-state against him (and where he won't win over any new friends with this account either).
       Opinionated, agreeably blunt but sometimes also annoyingly closed-minded, Theroux isn't everyone's ideal travel-writer, but there's little here that is even briefly boring (and little more that is tiresome), and a good deal that is very enjoyable. These are one man's impressions, and should hardly be taken for gospel, but for a whirlwind-tour of quite a few countries Ghost Train to the Eastern Star is most enjoyable.

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Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: Reviews: Paul Theroux: Other books by Paul Theroux under review: Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:

       American author Paul Theroux has written almost two dozen novels and a number of excellent travel books, the most famous being The Great Railway Bazaar. He has taught in Uganda and Singapore, and he lived in England for a long time. Several of his books have been filmed (including The Mosquito Coast) and a TV series was made of his stories, The London Embassy and The Consul's Files.

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© 2008-2022 the complete review

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