The Pillars of Hercules by Paul Theroux

Travels around the Mediterranean through the vulgar, the war-torn and the beautiful.

A great travel writer will not always write a great travel book but with Paul Theroux you can always be sure of a laugh along the way. Laconic, irritable and wry, Theroux is the epitome of the experienced traveller and here he tours the Mediterranean, hoping to cover every country that borders the sea.

It’s his first time in much of Western Europe but far from finding it dry and devoid of interest, he takes a kind of evil delight in exploring the clichéd and seedy.

“ was so over-visited it was haunted and decrepit…I was the man for it. Half a lifetime of travelling had given me a taste for the macarbre.”

Thus he throws himself into the greasy Costa del Sol populated by Brits on pensions and pasty tourists from Manchester demanding their fish and chips.

“The utterly blighted landscape of the Spanish coast… Europe’s vacationland, a vile, straggling sandbox… It had a definite horror-interest.”

On the way he becomes mystified by two aspects of barbarism buried in the Spanish psyche – bullfighting and violent pornography. The first appals him as the bull is doomed from the start (the horns shaved and the animal drugged). Yet the bullfights are screen everywhere and all anyone can tell him is ‘It’s a Spanish thing.’

The pornography is equally bewildering as next to the kids comics are to be found magazines depicting Spanish men and women engaging in brutal rites with animals and sexual mutilation. Theroux finds himself ‘baffled’:

“It seems incontestable to me that a country’s pornography was a glimpse into its subconscious mind.”

But whilst he speculates wildly on what all this pain and erotic suffering might mean the shopkeeper asks him to put the magazine down if he has no intention of buying it; Theroux at his best, laughing at himself.

He strikes on through the Riviere of South France and marvels at the old ladies who encourage their poodles to shit on every square inch of pavement. Then onto Corsica and Sardinia where he realises that for all the empires that have swept through the Mediterranean and the extensive intermingling and migrations of races, each country is without exception highly mono-cultural and isolationist – people talk of the four mile journey between Corsica and Sardinia as though it were galaxies away.

Travelling through the Mediterranean with Paul Theroux is like witnessing the slideshow of a sadist with a good turn of phrase. He cheers himself up with a good meal, a clean train carriage or some thoroughly incongruous and touching sight but you sense he’s only really happy when he gets the chance to complain – horrified by the Greek tourist industry that prostitutes itself to stout Germans in hiking gear he complains:

“And when I saw Germans like that I did not think of hiking but invasion… As though they were unintentionally auditioning for a production of “The Private Life of the Master Race”.

His humour insulates him from any backlash the reader might feel at his scathing observations, whilst reassuring us that the world can be quite a garish and vulgar spectacle at times.

Theroux wanders where the mood takes him and bolsters the weaker parts of his narrative with quotes from old travel writers of the Mediterranean to give some kind of consistency to his wanderings. Yet he’s funniest when he zooms in on some aspect of daily life that illustrates the entire culture – Fascinated by the obsession with anal sex in Italy, he finally finds it in himself to ask some students the reasons behind this – they laugh and remind him that. In a country where the Pope declares contraception to be sinful, anal sex is a traditional form of birth control.

Theroux is also excellent when describing the habits and personality of various nationalities: he pictures the flustered gestures of an Italian and frantic glances ‘as though he was pleading to an invisible witness’. Or when he describes the Israelis:

“They were sullen, somewhat covert and laconic. They seemed assertive, watchful and yet incurious; alert to all my movements and yet utterly uninterested in who I was.”

In the course of this travels Theroux does risk some dangerous places like wartime Croatia and desperate Albania but he doesn’t stay long enough to get any more than a cursory impression. He spends a good part of the book on a cruise for the very rich and enjoys himself analysing the guests and also the whole phenomenon of the cruise ship – he is a traveller quite at home in a first class cabin scoffing caviar or on the back of a truck with a pack of biscuits.

Yet for all of this Theroux doesn’t really seem to know what he’s talking about in many places. Often he comes to swift conclusions that are simply inaccurate due to lack of contacts or time spent in the country. He makes pilgrimages to various famous writers as though to give meaning to his journey and in the end he’s obliged to miss out Lebanon, Libya and Algeria.

The Pillars of Hercules describes a disjointed journey that feels like it was written with insufficient notes and experience but at the same time is an entertaining read. Theroux rarely writes badly and if his journey is a little depressing and inconclusive, well, anyone who’s engaged in long stints of aimless travel will know the feeling.