The Pillars of Hercules, Paul Theroux

Theroux exports his acerbic wit to the Mediterranean for this reconstruction of the Grand Tour. It is pointless berating him – as many do – for his constant criticism and disparaging remarks. What is more remarkable in this book is the contrasts he throws up, both in his own writing – the tone of which shifts several times – and in the places he sees.

He studiously avoids high-brow culture in one form, opting for the “real” towns and villages, yet spurns the tourist meccas for literary discussions. An interesting mix, but of course both indigenous village, and concrete resort are real, and people live and work in both places.

He acknowledges his horror of the worst of the Spanish coast with this particularly damning passage:

“The meretriciousness, the cheapo appeal, the rankness of this chain of grease-spots is so well known it is superfluous for me to to describe it; and it is beyond satire. So why bother?”

Sadly, I imagine Theroux’s usual conversational approach to travelling would create marvellous vignettes of some of these places. But he has more prestigious and authentic fish to fry.

His section on the former Yugoslav republics of Slovenia and Croatia and the chapter on Albania are truly worth the price of the book alone. Albania, in particular, is still all but unknown in western Europe and this is an eye-opening account from 1994 of the poverty and paranoia of this most isolated of European states.

Exhausted, Theroux takes a break before recommencing his journey in an unexpected setting: a luxury cruise liner. Although potentially at odds with his usual modus operandi, I enjoyed this section immensely. Theroux manages to unearth the interesting characters on board and what could be more Grand Touresque than drifting through the Med with the wealthy. Is this Theroux playing at being Fitzgerald? If so, he does it with aplomb.

Once he changes tack again, and battles through the Middle East, and eventually to North Africa, the book turns ever more into a literary pilgrimage. An interesting one undoubtedly, but his much-promoted brother Peter (who is an Arabic translator, as Paul frequently mentions. Did no-one edit this book?) obviously helped him along the way here. However, Theroux does get to meet some very interesting writers, even if he rarely engages with them on a personal level, at least not for our benefit.

Despite the contrasts alluded to earlier, the thread that runs throughout the book is that the Mediterranean region’s identity transcends national borders. Everywhere he goes, Theroux is at pains to explain that the coastal towns are more like each other than their own hinterlands. Not a revolutionary point to make, but an interesting and well-enforced one here.

At one stage he explains that irony is often mistaken for curmudgeoness. He rarely helps to keep the distinction clear, but nevertheless Pillars of Hercules is an epic tour of a much-visted, yet rarely-contemplated tourist region.

Overall verdict: Stick with it.
Penguin, 1996

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