In 1973, a young teacher, hoping to become a published writer, had an idea for a book. He would leave London on the train, and travel by train in a wide elliptical loop through Eastern Europe, the Middle East, the Asian subcontinent, onto SE Asia and Japan, and return to London through Europe, after crossing Asia on the Trans Siberian Express.
The book which resulted - Theroux's THE GREAT RAILWAY BAZAAR - began his career with an unprecedented success, and the books which have followed have made him one of the most widely read authors in the world. He has published several entertaining "armchair travel" volumes about his trips through South America, Africa, and China, among other destinations; more than two dozen works of fiction; and became a confident of the eccentric author V S Naipul. About three years ago, he wondered what his experience would be like if he repeated his first voyage. I'm happy to report that this recent book about his latest experience is just as enjoyable as the book which started it all.
I had read other books of his (the travel books on audio are wonderful companions for a long trip in the car) but not the first one, so when I saw the announcement of the repeat trip and related book, I tracked down THE GREAT RAILWAY BAZAAR from a used book dealer and read it in preparation for the latest.
On this trip, obviously, Theroux is 30 years older. He discusses the life changes, some painful, some enriching, which he has experienced during that time. And the insight he has gained over the years enriches his travel, revises his opinions, and makes this book more interesting and engrossing than the first.
I've read comments by other reviewers that perhaps this latest book is overlong, and I might agree; but as I think about what he relates I'm hard pressed to choose a section to omit or skip over.
He is unable to repeat his route through Iran and Afghanistan, and swings through Georgia, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan instead. Then onto Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, by plane to Burma, then onto Thailand, a brief stop in Laos, and an eye opening swing through Vietnam. Then to Japan, across the Sea of Japan by plane, to board the Trans Siberian Express.
The most moving parts of the journey are in Burma and Vietnam. On his earlier trip 30 years ago, he had visited a mountain hotel resort near Mandalay in Burma. His return reunites him with the same family who still operate the hotel, and with the grown men who were children when he first stayed there, and who have enthusiastic memories of his visit and tell him with emotion that his description of their resort created an upsurge in business for them which has not abated. And in Vietnam he revisits cities which were feeling the pressure and degredation of war in the 1970's and which now are vibrant and alive with a booming economy and a resolute common attitude of turning away from the past and toward the future without recrimination.
For all readers who love an intriguing combination of autobiographical memoir and adventure - Theroux's latest book is a treat.
REVIEWED BY WOODSTOCK
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