BOOKS TRAVEL:; It's his Italy, innit

'It was corrupt, it was pure. There were nasty tycoons, there were friendly folks'
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The Independent Culture
THE PILLARS OF HERCULES by Paul Theroux, Hamish Hamilton pounds 17.50

THERE is a story about a friend of Paul Theroux meeting an editor in New York. The latter proceeds to enthuse about having Paul on his list. In reply, the friend sings the praises of The Mosquito Coast, only to be abruptly cut off. "Oh, I'm not talking about the novels!" the publisher remarks dismissively. "I mean the big non-fiction books."

This assessment was amply justified by sales of The Great Railway Bazaar and The Old Patagonian Express, but Theroux himself now appears considerably more equivocal about the genre: "I can only travel when I am happy, but when I am happy I miss the productive routines of my life, and the woman at the centre of it. Each morning these days I woke to the questions, Where am I and what am I doing here? and then got up and attempted to make something of the day." It doesn't help that the answer to Theroux's first question, in this instance, is that best-trodden and most written- up patch of all, the shores of the Mediterranean. Using trains and ferries wherever possible, Theroux sets out to travel from one of the "pillars of Hercules" (Gibraltar) to the other (Ceuta). In the event, he can't get into Libya and considers Algeria too dangerous, so the North Africa section is reduced to side trips to Tunisia and Morocco.

He is frank about the difficulties involved: "You know this already. You have been to Italy - very likely to Sicily, perhaps to Siracusa ... Never mind. That was your trip, that was your Italy. This book is about my trip, my Italy. This is my Mediterranean." So what is it like, Paul Theroux's Mediterranean? It turns out to be an enigma. "It was corrupt, it was pure. There were horrible apartments, there were beautiful headlands. There were nasty tycoons, there were friendly folks. The sea was polluted and blue, the sea was a green gin-fizz of stillness." You get the picture: it's this, it's that; it's two, two, two seas in one. So it's appropriate that The Pillars of Hercules should be two books, indeed two trips, in one.

The tone of the first section is illustrated early on when Theroux attends a bullfight. His position on bullfighting is simple: he's agin it. "A gruesome entertainment ... a cruel farce ... a gory spectacle ... institutionalised sadism." But hang on, surely you can't just dismiss a phenomenon enjoyed by millions of otherwise civilised people? "Elaborate cultural explanations are made on behalf of bullfighting. I found them all laughable." Oh well, that's that. The majority of Theroux's Anglophone readers, including me, will agree with him about bullfighting. The result? We've not only learned nothing, we've had our prejudices massaged. Needless to say, this high-minded revulsion has nothing in common with the smug insularity of the "lower-middle-class hearties and trippers" which Theroux - they're trippers, you're tourists, he's a traveller - sideswipes in a comically bungled attempt at British argot: "The Spannies don't have our clean ways, innit?"

And so it goes. He likes Marseilles ("a cultural bouillabaisse") but not the nation as a whole. "The French are entirely frank in expressing their racism. I wondered whether this lack of delicacy, indeed stupidity, was an absence of inhibition or simply arrogance. Their public offensiveness ranged from smoking in restaurants to testing nuclear bombs in the Pacific." God, those French, eh? If they're not setting off nuclear devices on the atoll next to one's home in Hawaii, they're smoking at the next table! As for their racism, why can't they learn to be hypocritical about it like the Americans?

He likes Italy ("Venice is magic, the loveliest city in the world") but is appalled by the war in Dalmatia, which seriously disrupts his travel plans. Albania is ghastly, too, apart from some unspoilt coastline. Greece? "A cut-price theme park of broken marble, a place where you were harangued in a high-minded way about ancient Greek culture while some swarthy little person picked your pocket." An Evelyn Waugh or a P J O'Rourke might be able to make this sort of in-your-face xenophobia work. Theroux just sounds like some resentful middle-aged estate agent being dragged around Europe by his wife - or, in this case, his publisher - when he would rather be at home playing golf.

At this point, halfway through the book, Theroux breaks his journey. When he returns, it's on a freebie aboard a $1,000-a-day luxury cruise from Nice to Istanbul, and the writing sheds its flat, slack inconsequentiality in favour of some adroit social comedy and a nicely judged pastiche of Scott Fitzgerald. After that it's back to public transport again, but the mood remains upbeat as Theroux explores the hinterlands of Turkey and Syria, and meets Naguib Mahfouz, following his near-fatal stabbing in Cairo, and the almost equally ailing Paul Bowles in Tangier.

Disdaining any in-depth study of local politics or culture, Theroux takes an epiphanic approach to travel; its success is as much a matter of attitude as of chance. As with China and South America, the Arab world seems to work for him: the people he meets are more interesting, his insights less pat, he is less sure of himself and how he feels, his experiences are more memorable. Israel - "an outpost of Europe, the moral high ground as a refuge and a garrison" - is the exception; always complaining about the price of taxis and hotels, Theroux finds himself, as a US taxpayer, calculating how much of the place he already owns.

The Pillars of Hercules reportedly took a year to research, but it has the air of having been written much more quickly than that, and hardly edited at all (there are numerous repetitions, and several mistakes in Italian transcription). The frequent gratuitous apologias for the continuing relevance of what he is doing suggest that Theroux is only too well aware that the tradition of travel writing as late-20th-century Bildungsroman is now well past its sell-by date. Chatwin is dead, O'Hanlon silent, Raban has moved on. There are passages here which are both honourable and readable in a journalistic way, but maybe next time Paul Theroux should ignore his editor's blandishments,stay at home and write a real book.