Talking travel with Paul Theroux

In 1973, Paul Theroux took a trip that changed both his life and the course of modern travel writing. The Great Railway Bazaar, an account of nearly four months of train travel from London to Japan and back, has been essential reading ever since. Now comes Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Theroux’s highly anticipated follow-up, in which he retraces the route he took 35 years ago. From Eastern Europe and Turkey through Central Asia, India, Japan and back via the Trans-Siberian, Theroux weighs what has changed in the years he’s been away, and concludes that the most profound transformation has been in himself.

Ghost Train is Theroux’s 13th travel book, to go with his 27 works of fiction.

In the first of a two-part conversation with Gadling, Theroux talks about getting older and the importance of the return journey.

In Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, the subject of aging is a theme, this idea that older travelers are almost ghost like, and you often note the time that’s passed since you took the trip described in The Great Railway Bazaar. Aging also figures in some of your recent books — I’m thinking about Stranger at Palazzo d’Oro, Dark Star Safari. Is this your major subject now — getting older?

I only have myself to deal with, you know. Everything is going through the filter of my experience. Aging is an interesting subject. Not age as senility or incompetence or anything like that, but really age as a point of view, as a vantage point, because after a certain period of time you see the repetition of the world, you hear the same things over and over again and you realize, “I’ve heard that before.” The young really don’t have a sense of repetition. People who are young think that the world is going upward, that everything is going straight north, getting better and better. But I think with age there is a sense that the world works in cycles.

In Ghost Train, the idea of aging is important, because I’m returning to an earlier scene in my life and sizing it up. Also, in Dark Star Safari I went back and revisited a place that I had been. I was in my early 20s when I first lived in Central Africa and later, you know, in my late 50s I went back.

You’re very interested in the idea of the return journey in Ghost Train, and the fact that not many travelers make it. Not many travelers go back to a place they’ve been. Travel writers — or writers who travel — seldom do. Why do you think that is?

The main thing, the simplest thing, is that travel is a lot of trouble. Sometimes I get a bad review and I think: This person has never really been anywhere. Anyone who travels realizes that it takes a lot of time, a lot of physical effort, a very big commitment, a lot of money. Maybe not a lot of money, but money, because it’s a year off, it’s a year you’re not doing anything else. A year or more. It could be two years. Two years without any income, your life is in suspension. The commitment to a long trip is a huge one, and I think that’s one of the reasons.

And travelers move on.

Yes. Most people move on. They want to do other things. They feel they have have written a book on it and have closed the book. They don’t want to revisit a place because it opens up a whole new area of experience.

Another reason is this question of age. You know most writers when they get into their mid to late 60s begin to think of writing their memoirs. They are home, they’re playing golf, they are kind of winding up their affairs. If you take practically any writer my age…let’s say Mark Twain. When he was my age he was writing his autobiography. Evelyn Waugh was writing his autobiography, A Little Learning. Henry James was, Notes of a Son and Brother. Rudyard Kipling wrote Something of Myself.

All these people I have mentioned were engaged in a memoir, an autobiography or a backward glance, with no thought of revisiting an earlier scene. Kipling didn’t want to go back to India. Waugh didn’t want to go back to any of the places he went, Africa or elsewhere. Graham Greene still did some traveling, but he wrote two memoirs when he was in his late 60s. I’m 67. Maybe that’s what I should be doing, but I’m not doing it.

It seems that you’ve had the idea of the return journey even before your Africa trip in Dark Star Safari. You told V.S. Naipaul once that the most interesting thing a traveler can do is go back to a place and see it again.

That’s true. I have had this in my mind. I suppose the first country I went back to after a long period of time was China. I had made visits back to Africa and saw that it wasn’t doing that well. I went to China in 1980 and then back again in 1986 and 1987 and I saw that it was changing. I remember asking a diplomat in Shanghai, “What’s going to happen next in China?” He said he didn’t know.

Is that because he was there, with no vantage point?

This was in 1987 when we were talking. And there were a lot of cranes and buildings being built in Shanghai, but it was still very much old Shanghai, even though the economy was changing, and he said, “We had no idea that this was going to happen after the Cultural Revolution.” He didn’t know Shanghai was going to become much busier and have a lot of manufacturing and America would start outsourcing things there and things were loosening up. In other words, he said, “I have no idea what’s going to happen next because I wasn’t expecting this.” You know, Shanghai is a boom town now. It doesn’t even resemble, 20 years later, in the slightest the Shanghai of that earlier period, so I saw that and I guess I was thinking about China when I was talking to Naipaul at the time.

Or I was thinking of the kind of thing everybody thinks about, which is going back home. You go back to the place where you were born, back to a school, back to a house you used to live in, and it’s always changed. For a writer that’s a gift. It’s something else to write about. The ways that people change, the ways that people age, are always full of fascination. I think that’s what I was driving at then.

But you can’t make a career out of it.

Yes, I imagine that you can’t constantly go back on your earlier work.

No, because that’s memory lane. But still, I was glad I took this trip, because I learned a lot. You learn a lot about the world by going back, which is another way of saying that by growing older you learn a lot. There are a lot of lessons. You don’t even know them when you are young. You think the world is constituted different, designed for steady improvement, and that’s not the case.

Tomorrow: Theroux takes on India, China and Russia, considers the impact of
The Great Railway Bazaar and tells us where he’s traveling to next. Click here to read part 2.