“The fairest way of judging travel books is by their truth and their wit,” according to Paul Theroux. Paul Theroux’s The Pillars of Hercules is the antithesis of what is often wrong with modern travel writing. It can be a glossed over vision of paradise, or a slap-happy look at all these terrible things that happened to the writer. Theroux is one of the great travel writers because he lives up to his own expectations without falling into travel writing cliches.
In The Pillars of Hercules, Theroux travels the Mediterranean. His journey begins at Gibraltar, and he journeys primarily via train and public boat (but never airplane) across the region, including stops in unique destinations like Northern Cyprus, Albania, and a Croatia still scarred by war, replete with refugees. Theroux is first to admit that there is no shortage of literature on the Mediterranean, “There was a time when I wanted to see only wild places, and was reluctant to go to a place that had been written about extensively. But then–it is so funny about travel–I would go to a place that everyone had been written about and it was as though I was seeing something entirely new.” He succeeds in delivering such a narrative to us, as well as providing readers with a veritable bibliography of what to read next. I was excited to read this book in order to remove it from my bookshelf, but now I have a list of half a dozen more books I must read. Like Mark Twain, he ventures on occasional asides about history or the travelers who preceded him, yet, unlike Mark Twain, I do not feel as if Theroux was being paid by the word.
Theroux, unlike many “travel writers” who can only deliver the vague flowery prose of cliches, is a master of the visual. Other authors lack description in what makes the grand cities wonderful. They do not tell us about the unappealing parts, and when they do, it can be written with sarcastic hyperbole, a self-mocking simplicity. Paragraphs from other writers could not capture what this single Theroux sentence does: “Oristano had a moribund atmosphere that was almost palpable, enervating heat, and an audible monotony that was like the drowsy buzz of a single futile bumblebee.”
Some of his journey is well planned, and those are the best parts of the book. One of the most entertaining and well-written chapters is set aboard a luxury cruise (which had been given to Theroux by the cruise line). He met a cast of characters, seemingly lifted from Graham Greene fiction. It is great to observe intrepid traveler Theroux as he tumbles into the same traps of luxury that all cruise ship passengers do. He makes the same snap judgments about destinations as other passengers who spend only one day at port, and he begins to understand how difficult it is to want to leave a floating palace where every want can be arranged. On occasion, when Theroux wanders through boring towns, he can bore the reader also. The book requires no previous knowledge, and, while it is a coherent narrative, it can be picked up and read from the start of any chapter. This makes it a delightful book to have on the shelf, an entire package of short voyages to read when the mood strikes.
It is nearly impossible to arrive at a destination without preconceived notions. Expectations arrive with you, from the sparkling web sites, from friends’ recommendations, and the romance in the music. Likewise, reading Paul Theroux arrives with expectations. Paul has acquired a moniker which is now attached to his name: “Cranky Paul Theroux.” Even the most mellow travelers (and I would like to believe I am one) arrive occasionally with crankiness, and not to share it on occasion would be a dishonest representation of the journey.
When reading the book, I did not perceive Theroux as particularly cranky, just opinionated, which is easy to demonstrate. Many of us can share in his dislike of the condo-ridden, Brit-filled Spanish seaside towns (“It lifted my spirits to imagine the destruction of such a place”). But what endears him to us is the honesty of his opinions and the effectiveness of his adjectives. He scorns the war in the Balkans, but I can relate to his palpable disdain for ethnic and religious warfare. He maintains a prejudice against the Greeks, primarily due to their centuries-old (often self-created) troubles with the Turks, and he mocks the manner in which Greeks have preserved ancient Greek ruins as quiet places of reflection, when this was not their intended purpose (“It was just what you would expect to happen if you put a pack of ignoramuses in charge of a jumble of marble artifacts they had no way of comprehending.”) But it would be wrong to let such statements interfere with the pleasures of traveling with Theroux.
There are places that I will never go, and places that I desire to go. In this book Theroux delivers both of them in a depth that most travel writers will never achieve.
Overall: Insightful and enjoyable, with a few strong opinions thrown in
Book review of The Pillars of Hercules by Paul Theroux- Review of best travel books of all time.