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Book Reflections – The Pillars of Hercules by Paul Theroux

Book cover – The Pillars of Hercules

Paul Theroux wrote The Pillars of Hercules – A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean in 1995 after spending about 12 months travelling from Gibraltar, Spain to Tangier, Morocco, the long way. If you’ve read any Theroux before you’ll know that he avoids air travel and prefers to travel by train, boat or bus and as a last resort, private car. That’s what he did to go around the Mediterranean.

As you can imagine, travelling alone and by public transport, he met some interesting people, like:

  • the bookshop owner in Syracuse, Sicily who is proud of Sicily’s mixed heritage and teaches Paul some dialect words and explains their origins or
  • The Jewish Belgian musician with depression and a speech impediment on the ferry from Israel to Turkey who regularly travels between rented rooms in Israel and Belgium and for his depression needs sunshine and Jews
  • The Israeli border security guard who demanded to know what he was doing there as she flicked through his passport and then recognized his name and let him into Israel saying that she had read his books
  • The man in Syria who likes visiting Aleppo where he can eat, drink, disco, have sex but never talk because Addad’s secret police are everywhere, listening and arresting.
  • The taxi driver in Albania who took Theroux to a beachside car market selling 500 cars stolen elsewhere in Europe
  • the student in Ancona who explains that the emphasis on sodomy in Italian pornography is “an old Italian method of birth control”
  • The priest in Ma’aloula, Syria who says the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic
  • The Croatian taxi driver who took Theroux onto the mountainside behind Dubrovnik near where the Serbian artillery had shelled the city to see that about 1/3 of the roof tiles in the old town were new from repairs after the bombardment of the UNESCO World Heritage listed town
  • The money changer in Tirana, Albania who explains that the bunkers that dot the land were built during the dictatorship of Hoxha. There was one bunker for every family to protect the Albanians I’m case of invasion.

Theroux has very little positive to say about the over developed resort towns that surround the Mediterranean:

The look of tragic absurdity in a resort town out of season was epitomized by Rimini, so hopeful, so ready, so empty… an ancient town that was also a cheap seaside resort, a blend of classical ruins and meretricious entertainments, was a perfect image for Italy too.

I’ve been to some of the places that Theroux visited and so I was able to compare my recollections with his writing as a sort of test of authenticity. I agreed with most of what he said (including Rimini). I too like to connect with strangers when I’m travelling and I enjoyed reading about his interactions.

Theroux caught the train up the Italian coast and across France into Spain. Of the northwestern Italian coast he was very positive

Dramatic and dignified by rocky cliffs and blasted by wind. This was one of the loveliest sections of coastlines in the entire Mediterranean… They had in common with the cliffs of the Costa Brava in Spain, and the seaside heights of Croatia, and sections of the Turkish coast, and north Cyprus. But wherever the Mediterranean coast was flat it was over-built; the low-lying shores had been deemed suitable for hotels and mass tourism, and had been destroyed.

Now that we live in Norway we travel south a few times a year. Each time that we plan a trip we look hopefully at destinations that are affordable and easy to get to. We then grimly cross them off the list one by one as we look at photographs of just what Theroux describes. We were super lucky to have 2 weeks on the gem of Lipari this summer!

I bought this book 2nd hand a few years ago and brought it with me. After our Sicilian summer holiday I was inspired to read it. It took me a few weeks to read it but I’m glad that I persevered.

Theroux several times ponders why he is travelling but it seems that he had a book deal so I suppose that was a good motivation but it takes a lot of stamina to keep on travelling for over a year, alone and sometimes in bad accommodation with bad food. Travelling through Croatia during the war and Albania with its desperate poverty nearly broke him and he flew home to his wife for the summer before flying back to restart the trip the following autumn, bizarrely aboard a luxury cruiseship. I don’t blame him though. These days I feel like I’m squandering money and missing out on time with my family when I travel alone and I am often struck by the futility.

The ruin of Albania, the bad roads, the skinny people, the rural poverty, the broken glass, the vandalism, the cruelty… I felt I had been through a mild ordeal.

I’m glad that I read the book. The second half of the book is disjointed and disappointing but it’s worth reading for the insights into Syria before it was destroyed and Tunisia, where I’d love to go. Theroux travels with an open mind and heart and records everything for the reader’s pleasure. He is aware of the potential value of his writing and even makes a comment that he thinks his section on Albania will be ethnographically significant. If you are planning a trip to the Mediterranean or are a lover of travel writing, why not read this book.

Here is a very good review that I suggest you read:

jeroenvogel.com/2015/04/26/book-review-the-pillars-of-hercules-by-paul-theroux/

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2 comments on “Book Reflections – The Pillars of Hercules by Paul Theroux

  1. Pingback: Book Reflections – The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna | strivetoengage

  2. Pingback: Book Reflections – Amurath to Amurath by Gertrude Bell | strivetoengage

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This entry was posted on September 9, 2016 by in travel writing and tagged , , , , , , .
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