Book Twenty-Eight: The Pillars of Hercules

This is another re-read. I was feeling a hankering for some Theroux, and this happened to be in at the library, so I grabbed it. Paul Theroux feels me with a sense of deep, abiding satisfaction. He’s the sort of person I think I would like to travel with, except that he points out that he hates traveling with people, because people never agree on when to deviate from the plan and spend a few extra days here or there.

Theroux wrote this book when he realized that in all his traveling, he hadn’t spent much time around the Mediterranean. So he decided to circumnavigate the Mediterranean the long way, from Gibraltar to Ceuta. After roundly abusing the “European tour” in the beginning of the book, Theroux roams on a continent sweeping adventure, keeping as close to the coastline as possible.

Along the way, he vows not to stay at comfortable hotels, traveling in the off season so that he can actually see the places he visits for what they are, bemoaning towns which have turned into tourist traps which shut down entirely during the winter. He eschews planes, taking trains, buses, and ferries. He meets African immigrants, Chinese men selling lighters in the street, and spends some time on my home isle of Lesbos. (Please, spare me the obvious jokes.)

I love reading Theroux because he captures the spirit of the people and places he interacts with. I love his commentary on the apes on Gibraltar, who understandably bite tourists when they are mocked, and he differentiates from travelers and tourists in the same way I do. His insights on the people and cultures he interacts with are also very fascinating, to me at any rate. I love that along the way, he encounters people who have read his books, or heard of him. I imagine that might be secretly very pleasing. To be known. Recognized.

I also think there’s something to be said for Theroux’s tour. He managed to see an amazing cross section of Europe, the Middle East, and African culture. He ate awesome food, explored people’s feelings on a range of issues from Spanish politics to marriage, and met a varied and colorful assortment of humanity. I’d be tempted to repeat his adventure, someday, except that I think the Mediterranean Theroux visited might be gone, and I would spend the entire trip being sad.

Maybe I’m just in a foul mood lately. But I’ve been feeling an overwhelming disappointment in this human-poisoned world. For a moment, reading Theroux, I was reminded that goodness once existed.


The Pillars of Hercules, by Paul Theroux. Published 1995, 509 pages. Travel.