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 handles areas 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, or post-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. For more reviews of Paul Theroux’s travel books, click here.