Travel writer and novelist Theroux (The Elephanta Suite, 2007, etc.) offers an elegiac retracing of roads and railroads taken across the vastness of Eurasia.
Rejoining his 1975 travelogue The Great Railway Bazaar, Theroux takes to the chemin de fer from London to Kyoto four decades older and, it seems, more inclined to the better things in life (“a woman in a blue uniform brought me a bottle of Les Jamelles Chardonnay Vin de Pays d’Oc 2004 . . . and then the lunch tray: terrine de poulet et de broccolis, chutney de tomates, the entrée a fillet of lightly peppered salmon, with coup de chocolat for dessert”). He is a touch rueful and more than a touch reflective, viewing his metaphorically mirrored self in the sleeping-compartment window and thinking of marriages, friendships and youth lost. The meditative aspect soon yields to Theroux’s testy, Kiplingesque impatience with the cultures east of Folkestone, to his allergy to the “Asiatic ambiguity” that lies before him. He is willing to debate such things with the people he meets, unafraid to argue the relative merits of Western civilization vis-à-vis Islam, to name just one topic of conversation. As with his previous books, Theroux is unafraid of roughing it in the interest of getting a story, and some of his new memoir’s best moments find him stealing across snowy, remote borders, “like a specter, in a strange country at nightfall,” only to have his strength and compass restored by a delicious bottle of wine or morsel. Theroux wanders to places that scarcely cross most other travel writers’ minds, among them Vientiane (“a sleepy town on the banks of the muddy river, famous for its cheap beer”) and Phnom Penh (“scruffy, rather beaten-up…like a scarred human face in which its violent past was evident”). He also keeps up a running argument with the books he reads along the way, to say nothing of his contemporaries (Chatwin never traveled alone, he harrumphs, and neither does bête noire Naipaul).
Fans of Theroux will say that he hasn’t lost his touch; the more critical will say that he breaks no new ground. Either way, worth looking into.