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4.1 out of 5 stars
The Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean
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29 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on 19 February 2001
I started reading this book with trepidation. The last Theroux book I read was "Kingdom by the Sea", a book that primarily sought to inform the reader about how smart the author was and how he didn't much like anywhere in England at all. It was with great surprise that I actually thoroughly enjoyed the book from cover to cover.

Theroux is from an academic background and this often shows in his writing. His text is can be ponderous and abstract - examining what it is to be alive and to be in a foreign place. Unlike "Kingdom", however, which was 90% in this style, "Pillars" is a lot more fresh and accessible.

It should also be noted that Theroux's approach to travel is very individualistic - he takes the most pleasure from the most obscure places. He covers Barcelona in one page, Greece in 2, but spends a chapter on a remote village in Tunisia. This is perhaps the essence of his work. He concentrates squarely on the people in the places he visits, rather than the places himself. This stands sharply in contrast with the writings of the other popular travel writer, Bill Bryson, who seeks out the well known places on his travel and gives his forthright opinion of them. Theroux is more the dark shady traveller who mills around the edges of the sites and observes those who are there to see the sites.

Overall, I found the book to be highly enjoyable. It gives great insight into the people and culture of the Mediterranean, but don't expect to use it as a planning book for your next holiday - it is definitely the tale of one man's journey.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 27 September 2008
I had previously read Theroux's 'Kingdom by the Sea' and have to say I intensely disliked it. So I was unsure about this book (which I'd bought before reading Kingdom) and it sat on my bookshelf for over 2 years.

But when I started to read this book I began to quite like it. I think that, as other reviewers have pointed out, the book is unconventional in a few ways.

First, Theroux, unlike other travel writers does not pretend to enjoy the company of all those who he meets and it is refreshing to have a travel writer who admits he really dislikes some people who he describes meeting.

Secondly, when visiting a country he doesn't head straight for the traditional sights but instead goes off the usual track and so gives the reader an insight into a country that he/she wouldn't get from reading other travellers' accounts.

Thirdly, he travels off-season and so the stories he tells and people he meets are mainly of those who live and work in the places visited which certainly makes the book more interesting. In contrast to this, there is one chapter in which he takes a journey on a luxury cruise ship. I see that one of the other reviews felt this to be out of place but I thought it was a very funny chapter. Also it demonstrated the shallowness of much of modern tourism as the tourists on this luxury ship saw virtually nothing of the countries they visited and simply wanted to return to the ship as soon as they could; it makes you wonder why they bothered going at all!

Anyway, this book has changed my view of Mr Theroux's merits as an author and has persuaded me to read more by him.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 7 April 2011
I bought this book because (1) I now am an American ExPat living in Spain; (2) I love some parts of the Mediterranean that I repeatedly visit (Tarragona, Barcelona, Ibiza, South of France) and the book advertised going to places on the Mediterranean I yearn to visit (e.g., Morocco ) or am just curious about (most of the Middle East); (3) I liked the conceit of traversing the Mediterranean from Pillar of Hercules to Pillar (something he does not actually do!); (4) I very much enjoyed, years ago, his "Patagonia Express" and "Mosquito Coast"; and (5) thanks to Paul Bowles I had gotten into a phase of reading North African ExPat and indigenous author fiction.

Early on I came to hate the book and quarrel with Theroux. I found his treatment of the parts of Spain and France that I relish nasty and curmudgeonly and basically just unobjectively mean-spirited. If there was something negative to find he dogged it to excess. If there was something positive he mostly ignored it or dismissed it with a sneer.

Recently I have been disappointed by a couple authors I have enjoyed previously to the point of abandoning the book (Julian Barnes) or struggling to finish it (Saramago) or new ones whose writing I abandoned mid-book (to remain unnamed). For a while I feared this book would be the next in the rubbish heap. But for some reason I stuck with it. I think the reasons were mostly the conceit of (3), prior enjoyment (4) and the unvisited places of (2). Alas, the unvisited places I most cared about are given short-shrift or missed in his journey round the Mediterranean. (Hence the strategic benefit of not tracing his actual punctuated route on the two maps at the beginning of the volume.)

In locales most familiar to Westerners, he is invariably condescending and irritating at best. When it is thoroughly unfamiliar and hard-to-relate-to living circumstances (such as Albania or rich people on a $1000 a day luxury cruise) he is most sympathetic and revealing. (He is a good slummer--I'll grant him that!) Yet one suspects that those accounts are no more objective and accurate than they are for familiar places such as Mediterranean Spain or France or Greece. (Other reviewers have noted egregious inaccuracies and I won't rehearse those I have found.)

One of the best parts of the book is his on-going dialogue with expat authors who have lived in and written about places he visited. Yet even that part of the book is at times irritating. He is particularly hard on other travel writers but is obtuse to the facts that his very criticisms much apply to this book and that it fails to live-up to the standards of being reliable source-book for later historians that he so extolls. Further, the combination of his admiration for certain authors and his loathing where they chose to live and write frequently has the effect of dismissing them as persons and ultimately belittling their writing.

Yet it is his brief encounter at the end with one such writer, Paul Bowles, in Tangiers that somewhat redeemed the book for me. Note both that Paul Bowles is reason number (5) for buying the book but also that I never expected Theroux to connect with Bowles or even be aware of him. (For an interesting account of Bowles, read Amanda Vaill's brilliant "February House.")

Theroux is well-read. I'll give that to him. And from the book I learned of, and made rewarding side-explorations of, fascinating figures as Apsley Cherry-Gerard (which reconnected with earlier listenings to Raph Vaughn William's 7th "Sinfonia Antartica" interspersed with readings from Scott's fatal Antarctic expedition journal).

I find it hard to recommend the book. It is idiosyncratic, often nasty and mean, unsympathetic to westerners (including himself but curiously not his Arabic translator brother Peter), and fairly unreliable. Yet at the end I was happy to be rid of it but at the same time well-aware that, despite all the shortcomings, I was glad I had read it.

That said, my rating would have been one star save the end part of the book where he meets with Paul Bowles.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 22 March 2010
Being a big fan of travel writing in general and Paul Theroux in particular, I have read most of his books. "The Pillars of Hercules" is beyond doubt one of his most entertaining, erudite and readable. In this work, Theroux travels around the Mediterranean coast, attempting to go from one Pillar of Hercules, Gibraltar, to the other end without ever going by airplane (as is his usual rule). He does this in two sections - first a trip from Gibraltar through Spain, France, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia and Albania to Corfu; and half a year later he then resumes his trip with a free cruise trip through the eastern part, finishing off in Morocco. The only nations he does not visit are Montenegro, Libya and Algeria, for security reasons. As usual with Theroux, along the way he perfectly describes a great number of interesting and curious people he meets, whether locals or fellow travellers, and he provides the sardonic commentary on the countries and events his readers have come to expect from him.

The book is full of allusion to other novelists on the region. Theroux clearly took a sizable pile of books about and from the Mediterranean with him, and this gives the trip an interesting literary character. Combine this with the much more overall optimistic tone he employs at the beginning of the book and his apologies for his negative approach to his trips, probably following on the somewhat critical reception his "The Happy Islands of Oceania" received because he was so unpleasant there, and the reader expects a rather uplifting romp through sunny lands. One is quickly disabused of this notion, however. Over time, Theroux falls back into his old pattern, but worse than usual. Normally, the fun of Theroux's writings is that he is cynical and critical, but nonetheless an excellent observer and considers carefully what the surface appearance of the places he visits really means. In this book he disappointingly fails in that regard. He seems to have more sympathy for a bunch of rich white do-nothings on a cruise ship than for the local population in the countries he travels through, perhaps influenced by the cruise company's decision to give him free berth in exchange for writing. His remarks upon the state of modern Greece in particular, but to a lesser extent also Slovenia and Egypt, are simply ignorant and pointless whining from an American who can't be bothered to be interested in what he sees.

Theroux can be witty and insightful when he really tries, as his passages on Italy, Turkey and Syria show, but when he gets bored he really becomes quite insufferable even to a fan like me. What makes this worse is not just the fact Theroux travels a lot to historical sightseeing type places, which he professes to dislike, making one wonder why he does so in the first place - but that he in fact goes so far as to make claims like "the Greeks were not Greek, but the descendants of Slavs and Albanian fishermen" is a sort of preposterous 19th century racist pseudo-anthropology. He pretends falsely that the Greek population supported the Colonels' regime, that they merely waste EU regional support funds in contrast to Italy (when in fact Greek living standards have risen as a result, and Italy is not remotely less corrupt than Greece is), and his ranting against the Greek attempts to preserve their monuments from abusive and disrespectful treatment by hordes of tourists makes him seem the worst stereotype of American travellers. He owes both the Greeks and the reader an apology there, and much the same can be said of his treatment of the Slovenes.

That being said, when he really tries in this book he truly is at his best. The book is informative, varied, interesting and well-written as always. His slightly mocking but not hostile descriptions of the individuals along his path are fantastic, and in particular the section of his trip dealing with Turkey (which justifiedly comes off much more civilized than in general Western perception) and Syria are enormously worth reading. This book would be a good one to read before continuing on to his "Dark Star Safari", which sets out from Egypt.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 14 September 2008
Paul Theroux's 'Grand Tour of the Mediterranean' is typical Theroux in many ways, the vagaries of his mood often colouring his perception of the places he visits, but he plays on his reputation as a misanthrop and cumugeon throughout this travelogue. After a comment on the opening page about 'runty shunted trees and ugly houses', he adds in paranthesis, 'The person who just muttered, "Oh, there he goes again!" must read no further'. In fact, bar a few exceptions - Greece gets a particularly damningand short thrift, Israel not much better, the Costa Del Sol of course - 'The Pillars of Hercules' is largely full of humanity and fresh perspective. When you expect him to buck convention and go on the attack - I was braced for a brutal slaying of Venice - it doesn't materialise. His writing on Corsica and Sardinia is particularly rewarding because it seems so little is known of these islands, relative to your Gibraltas and Cyrpruses, that it feels as if he is talking about another continent altogether.

Given that Theroux is not a political writer (or even a political person, as he says several times) it is also interesting to see how he handlesareas of enormous political sensitivity such as the Balkans and the middle East. Written in 1995, Israel was on the cusp of another Palestinian intifada while the Kosovan conflict (and NATO intervention) was yet to take place. Visiting Algeria was simply out of the question. Generally he approaches his travel through historical and literary anecdotes; mostly the latter, making small literary pilgrimages and looking up a number of living writers. Therefore his overview of Israel, for instance, orpost-Tito former Yugoslavia, are not examined with a need to take a balanced and informed view. His interest is more in taking a personal snapshot of a place at a particular moment in time. Thus his writing on ravaged post-communist Albania, for exampe, is vivid and awful because it is so subjectivised, told in his precise and provocative turn of phrase.

Theroux has a great comic eye for character, and he enlivens his travelogues with the strange, sometimes adrift, people he meets en route. The Pillars Of Hercules may be a more erudite (certainly on matters of literature) than his earlier travel books, but it is no less compelling. Funny, vivid and engaging to the last (500 plus pages), it's another great read from a master of the genre.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 17 April 2009
I only discovered Paul Theroux's writing recently (Dark Star Safari), but now that I have, I can't get enough. I love his (some might say) jaundiced views - though he's really just calling a spade a spade and not succumbing to maudlin political correctness. Although this book is 14 years old now, the details are still relevant but who reads Theroux for the politics anyway? To read Theroux is to sit beside him on the rickety dust-filled bus peppered with colourful characters licking chicken-fat stained fingers, or to alight opposite him on the slow train to somewhere with a gentle rain painting the windows. Each page a delight - it wouldn't matter if he travelled around the moon.
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I picked this up at a village fete last month, curious to see what the author had thought of Sicily (from which we'd just returned, and which is - it says here - the largest island in the Mediterranean), but soon became engrossed in the account of his peregrination around that inland sea. His original aim was to start on Gibraltar, off southern Spain, and travel clockwise (by bus, boat or train, but not plane) along the coast until he ended up at Cueta, off northern Africa. The two promontories are known as the eponymous Pillars of Hercules, and are separated by about a dozen miles, but Theroux opted to go the long way round.

He went through Spain, France, Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, Italy, Slovenia and Croatia, which was still in the middle of its war with the Serbs (this book was published in 1995). He got as far as Albania before taking a break that was partly induced by his witness of the deprivation and poverty in the Balkan states (particularly Albania). Some months later, he restarted his journey by joining a cruise ship which ended up in Istanbul, via Italy again, Malta and Greece. From there, he originally intended to go to Syria, but decided at the last minute to jump on a Turkish cruise to Egypt, Israel, (Turkish) Cyprus and back to Istanbul (one of his recurring themes is the joy of travelling alone and being able to change course on a whim). He then went to Syria, Israel again, then (Greek) Cyprus, Greece again, Tunisia and Morocco, where he was finally able to see Cueta. Along the way, he writes up what he sees, and who he talks to. Here he is, for example, on a Spanish train [p78]:

"There were shouting girls on the train, and there was sexual defiance in the way they seemed to challenge the boys across the aisle with their loud laughter [...] A poor old woman ate potato chips out of her handbag. A snotty infant clutched a paper bag. Two mustached nuns nodded as the train jogged on the tracks. The painter Constable said, 'Nothing is ugly in this world'".

That's as maybe, but Theroux doesn't seem to waste any time peering beneath the surface when he comes across something he doesn't like: others have already commented on his unfavourable - and all-encompassing - impression of Greeks and Israelis, for example. In that sense, this is an unbalanced, subjective description of his passage through these countries, but perhaps that's only to be expected from an uncompromising, idiosyncratic, intelligent author.

More interestingly (for me anyway), he shows a writer's sensitivity to words and their origins (e.g. "Barbarians" comes from the ungovernable inhabitants of the mountainous region of Barbargia in Sardinia [p160], a Sardinian plant which when eaten produces convulsive laughter "had given us the word sardonic - derisive, sneering - because sardinios in Greek meant "of Sardinia" [p156], and the habit of Barbary pirates of demanding payment from all ships leaving from the Spanish port of Tarifa is the origin of "tariff" [p26]). He also links the places he's seeing with other writers: James Joyce in Trieste, Lawrence Durrell and Naguib Mahfouz in Alexandria, Carlo Levi in Aliano, D.H. Lawrence in Taormina and Evelyn Waugh in Corfu. This aspect of the book is brought to the fore at the end: having arrived in Morocco and completed his circuit, he travels onto Tangier, where he meets with Paul Bowles, who shares his fascinating memories of Aaron Copland, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg, and their visits to that city. It's a reflective epilogue to Theroux's journey between the pillars (which marked the limits of civilization in ancient times) prior to returning to his native country beyond the Atlantic.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on 30 June 2001
Definitely one of Theroux's better travelogues, perhaps because of the feeling that he actually quite enjoyed this tour. Sometimes in previous books I became tired with his underlying scorn for almost everything and everyone he sees, relating encounters mostly with the people he loathed. At first it is quite amusing, but eventually becomes wearing as you wonder if Theroux dislikes other people because he basically dislikes himself. In this book, however, he usually qualifies any caustic observations and attempts to see the positive side (although he cannot find one good thing to say about bullfighting. Thankfully.) The best chapter is on Albania, which is almost shocking. Can it really be that bad? And if it is, why didn't Theroux love it? The worst chapter is when he takes a freebie trip on a luxury cruise liner. What was the point of that? It just doesn't fit with the rest of the book. Nevertheless, I'd still recommend the Pillars of Hercules to anyone that has the taste for armchair travel.
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on 5 September 2010
Being the first Paul Theroux book I have read I found Pillars of Hercules provided an insightful descriptive account of the authors' travels. Theroux pulls no punches and is frank and honest which in parts can come across as over the top. For example he appears to have it in for Greece and I cant help but think this is based on past experience or pre-conception as opposed to his travel experiences at the time. The nature of the solitary journey and methods of transport is portrayed as fundamental to the authors ethos however this comes to an abrupt end and he chooses to continue his tour by luxury cruise ship. As a result I cant help feeling this is somewhat contradictory and lacking coherence. More positively I enjoyed the authors ability to describe people and places and retell events through references to other works of literature. Overall an enjoyable journey.
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on 13 January 2000
I have read several of Paul Theroux's books and some of Bill Bryden's as well and I find both of them inspired writers.This is an enthralling book.It was great to visit ,once more,albeit by armchair this time all the old spots I loved before and just as entertaining to visit those places I've never been before. Paul Theroux is very descriptive in his writing and a great humourist as well.He can at times have a very wry sense of humour and beware anyone,who tramps on his toes,governments or individuals! I bought this book at the airport -on my way to Spain-and I felt after I finished reading it that I had done a complete tour of the Med. Well done to Paul Theroux and Thank You for many happy journeys in my imagination.
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