In this modern Grand Tour, Theroux sets off from Gibraltar on a journey around the Mediterranean Sea. It is a long, lively, and occasionally dangerous trip, up the coast of Spain, along the Riviera, by ferry to the islands of Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, and beyond. By foot, train, bus, and cruise ship, Theroux travels around Italy and the Greek islands, to Albania in a state of near anarchy and to war-torn Croatia. He sails into Istanbul, its minarets and mosque domes beckoning him to the Levant. Ahead are Damascus and the villages of Syria, shrouded in the cult of Assad; Israel, besieged by suicide bombers; Egypt, Morocco and Paul Bowles' Tangier. Exploring wild coastlines, probing through layers of tradition and culture, ancient and modern, tawdry and splendid, Theroux weaves the legends and siren calls of civilizations as old as time into a story about life on the Mediterranean today.
Reading the travelogues of Paul Theroux is not just an encounter with exotic geography and customs, it is also an intensely literary experience. Mr. Theroux is a scholar, a linguist and in his uniquely curmodgeonly manner a keen observer of men. He is funny and mindful of his sour temper as he pokes fun at his own style. He makes generalizations as he sneers at the "snap judgments and obnoxious opinions" expressed by Evelyn Waugh in Labels (1930), an account of that writer's cruise around the Mediterranean. I found his description of an encounter with another traveler hilarious -
"In life, it is inevitable that you meet someone just like yourself. What a shock that your double is not very nice, and seems selfish and judgmental and frivolous and illogical."
The book begins on a fiesty note - at the Rock of Gibraltar, one of the "Pillars of Hercules" where the author clearly prefers the company of apes to 'tourists'. Tourists he thinks are the worst kinds of humans but he promises early on not to talk about them. Mr. Theroux of course is not a tourist, he is a traveler. The interesting fact is that I agree with his characterization, at least of himself. I found the overall tone less vitriolic than the one employed in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star and Dark Star Safari. There are three cities the author showers considerable praise on - Dubrovnik, Jerusalem and Venice. He is kinder to the Italians but ruthless in his criticism of the Greeks. He relates his frustrating experience with Israel's security and then talks about his meeting with American expat Paul Bowles that borders on the surreal. I've encountered Istanbul twice in Mr. Theroux' works - once in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star and once in Pillars of Hercules - and I can't wait to go visit that grand city. There are encounters with other writers and other, more colorful characters, each contributing to a delightfully readable account.
Mr. Theroux says -
"But then a travel book is a very strange thing, there are few good excuses for writing one--all of them personal..The fairest way of judging travel books is by their truth and their wit"
If he were to judge his work by his own standards, I would say Mr. Theroux would be very proud. Highly recommended.