I’m almost finished with “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star”, probably going to wrap it up this afternoon. Amazing does not do it justice. Theroux does a remarkable job in conveying the greatness of each country and region, talking about the passions and fears of the people he encounters in each place. I have found the book to be incredibly in that he manages to present hardships and beauty side by side, making them appear to be interdependent. Traveling to a number of nations that have suffered both genocide and war, Theroux works to give a good representation of the feelings of local people, asking them about their memories of the hard times, and what they feel at present. These thoughts were particularly profound in his travels through the nations of Vietnam and Japan, given his status as an American national moving through areas hit heavily by U.S. military campaigns. I knew that Tokyo had been utterly destroyed toward the end of the war in 1945, but the last few chapters of this work have brought a new understanding of the life that was lost.
“This place looks old.”
Murakami smiled grimly. “Postwar. Like everything else.”
Murakami took out a picture, part of the folder he had prepared for our city tour. The panoramic photo showed twenty-five square miles of Tokyo flattened – not just flattened but scorched, burned to the ground.
“This is what the city looked like on the ninth of March, 1945.”
A wasteland, just ruble and cinders, one or two blackened buildings still standing, the river coldly gleaming. “People went there,” he said, his finger tracing the river, “but even the river burned. Everything was napalmed.”
As we hunched over the picture, the bowls of hot soba noodles were brought out on trays- a tray for each of us, a tray for the chopsticks, a small dish of pickled vegetables on a smaller tray.
“The B-29s dropped the bombs. It was all planned by Curtis LeMay.” If I asked any of my well-read friends who had masterminded the firebombing of Tokyo, I doubt whether one of them could have supplied the correct name.
“A hundred thousand people died in that one night, mostly civilians,” Murakami said. He was moving his finger from ash pile to ash pile on the photo. “It was a wall of flames. We’re here.”
His fingertip rested on a featureless patch of ashes.
This conversation with Haruki Murakami, one of Japan’s most loved and well know writers, paints a broad picture of the terror at the end of World War Two. And yet Japan was rebuilt and has prospered, trailing just behind the U.S. as the second largest economy until very recently. This is much of Theroux’s examination of each nation; tragedy and human suffering right alongside beauty and great accomplishment. The same was found in Vietnam, flattened by American bombs just decades before, but with what appears little resentment toward the individual American of the modern day.
In every city and region that he visits, Theroux presents the reader with balanced thoughts and criticism of the culture that he observes, looking at the good and the bad in the same light, and for the most part presenting them on an equal plane. Upon arriving to China, however, he brought forth a new emotion. Within the space of two pages, this author who I have come to revere manages to desecrate the country I love, putting his feeling into such eloquent words that I could not help but second guess my adoration. His description of China as a chaotic and claustrophobic place are not out of reach of the truth. The nation’s cities are extremely large and have a tendency to leave the outsider feeling simply that: excluded.
The vast majority of Chinese cities have not been designed with aesthetics in mind, but with a need to keep pace with development beyond measure. With this in mind, I have felt that there is an absolute beauty in these disjointed sprawls, and unpredictable, almost self-conceived art. Theroux, on the other hand, makes reference to cities as groupings of massive tombstones, at one point referring to Tokyo as a necropolis, a city for the dead. Mr. Theroux, I can take your dislike of the Chinese megacity in stride. In fact, I have gone farther than that and have purchased another book of his, “Riding the Iron Rooster”, a chronicle of his travels through China by train. He can verbally desecrate quiet well in the space of two sentences, so I am quite excited for an entire book.