Sesh's Reviews > The Pillars of Hercules

The Pillars of Hercules by Paul Theroux
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's review
Aug 29, 2007

really liked it
bookshelves: travel
Read in April, 2000

A moving account from the master of travel writing. In "The Pillars of Hercules", Mr. Theroux carts us once again on a buoyant ride by train, bus, and ship on a great round trip from Gibraltar on the European end of the Mediterranean to Tangier on the African end, via Spain, France, Corsica, Sardinia, Italy, Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Israel, Egypt and Morocco.

Readers who are familiar with Mr. Theroux's other travel books("The Great Railway Bazaar", "The Old Patagonian Express","Riding the Iron Rooster", "The Kingdom by the Sea", "The Happy Isles of Oceania") will be treated once again to his delightful mix of keen observation, in-the-face curiosity in people, sense of irony, opinionatedness, and lots of information. His books are never simplistic travel narratives of the "there's another lovely monument" kind. More often than not, scenery is simply the backdrop to the real account:
that of people, their lives, what they make of their environment, where they have been, and where they are going.

Here's Mr. Theroux in Siracusa, Sicily, engaging a bookstore owner in small talk. "'This was a great city once - capital of Sicily,' he said. He named for me the famous Siracusans - Theocritus, the Greek playwright Epicharmus, Santa Lucia, Vittorini. 'So many people have come and gone. We've been Phoenician, Greek of course, from long ago. But more recently Arab, Spanish, French. You can hear it in the names. Vasqueza is a Siracusa name - Spanish. We have French ones too. Take my name, Giarratana - what do you think it is?'' Can't imagine.' But the truth was that I did not want to guess wrong and risk offending him. 'Pure Arab,' said Mr. Giarratana. 'Giarrat is an Arab word.' 'What does it mean?'
'I don't know. I'm not an Arab!'"

With his famously mischievous eye for the unusual, Mr. Theroux captures the essence of life along the shores of the Mediterranean, so different in shape from that inland, no matter what the country. As you race through the book you get the sense that the author is telling a simple story of
a humanity that is, as always, defending its individuality and its proud local heritage while trying to find a common ground with the rest of it.

Compared to his other travel books, in this one Mr. Theroux comes off more relaxed, while at the same time casting a wide net on history and mythology, seemingly out of deference to the grandeur of the Mediterranean. But history comes to life colorfully rendered with the author's characteristic candor, and an irreverent position that tilts at the windmills. I won't give too much away, but read the parts on Greece and tell me you didn't either turn red with annoyance, or double up with laughter. You can love him or hate him, but you just can't ignore him.

The journey from the northern Pillar of Hercules, the Rock of Gibraltar, to the southern, Ceuta, is an hour's ferry ride across the water from Europe to Africa. Or, with Mr. Theroux, you could take the long way. When I put this book, I for one was sorry that there weren't a few hundred more pages to go.


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