Spanish pilgrimages generate tears of rage and hymns of joy
THERE are few pleasures — maybe only one— greater than reading about the privations of travellers from the comfort of an armchair. I derived just this kind of enjoyment from TheYearWe SeizedtheDay by Elizabeth Best and Colin Bowles (Allen & Unwin, $29.95), though very little else.
Two friends decide, without much enthusiasm, to do the demanding walk across the top of Spain to Santiago de Compostela, Europe’s most famous centre of pilgrimage. She is a one-book novice, he the 50-year-old author of many. She needs to prove herself after a serious illness. He hopes to purge his guilt over his wife’s suicide and get over a failed love affair.
So innocence and experience set out on the 800km journey, and keep diaries of their days. It soon becomes obvious that (a) Colin is no Hispanophile and (b) the proprieties are not for him. The churros (a kind of doughnut) he tries for breakfast are: ‘‘ Chewy, sweet, and sit in the stomach like shit on a shovel.’’
Elizabeth, too, has trouble coping, and soon collapses. Colin is as sensitive about her condition as he is about the food: ‘‘ Eli is seriously f---ed.’’ Only in the metaphorical sense. As they toil along the pilgrim tracks bent under their packs, Elizabeth comes to regard him as a father figure. But the last thing Colin wants is to be looked up to. It means he has to hide his own problems, which the walk only seems to exacerbate. He can’t stop thinking about the role his infidelities might have played in the suicide of his wife, and his love affair’s failure tears whatever is left of him apart.
So he gets grumpier and grumpier, while Elizabeth goes into an equivalent physical decline. Their feet and their egos are hurting, their patience is wearing thin, and when Colin loses it, it’s not a pretty sight: ‘‘ Across the table, his eyes grow wide, his face twists like a wrung-out rag, he arcs on his seat, his voice changes tone. Suddenly I know longer know the man.’’
One crisis follows another. Worst of all, the infection from Elizabeth’s blisters is spreading, and doctors give her dire warnings. The infection heads for the knee, and they for Santiago. The race is on.
They make it in time, and their reactions to the cathedral highlight their differences. Elizabeth, though not a believer, cannot help but genuflect and pray. Colin finds it the unholiest place he’s ever seen, and reaches for his trusty sledgehammer: ‘‘ with the possible exception of the Pussy Ping Pong Club in Bangkok’’.
After the tensions of Best and Bowles, WalkingtheCamino by Tony Kevin (Scribe, $32.95) is like a cold Spanish beer. Never mind that he’s 63, overweight and his feet give him hell; he’s on a pilgrimage. Kevin, a retired diplomat and author of TheSinking oftheSiev-X (an investigation into the notorious asylum-seeker drownings), takes the less travelled trail from south to north; longer, but a lot more interesting.
Cities such as Cordoba and Salamanca fascinate him, especially their ‘‘ gracious and unstressed urbanity’’. They have people-centred streetscapes that Australian cities have long lost. The villages, newly prosperous thanks to Spain’s membership of the European Union, are similarly humane, evolving over centuries of convivencia (living together).
No one knows better than Kevin, a student of Hispanic history, that Spain hasn’t always been like that. There has been savagery as well as civility: the expulsion of the Moors, the Inquisition, the civil war, the national sport of bullfighting. ‘‘ What kind of men and women,’’ he wonders, ‘‘ could enjoy watching this?’’
He has another advantage over the feckless travellers who battled and bickered across the peninsula’s top. He’s a practising Catholic. The churches on his way are for prayer, not photography. As he pushes his protesting body onward, his demons are driven out: ‘‘ The doors into my soul started to open.’’ And there’s a slowly spreading sense of peace.
So his Santiago is a different place from the one in the Best and Bowles book, and it brings this gentle and thoughtful narrative to a powerful finale: ‘‘ Priests in red and white vestments began to gather before the altar, and then suddenly the grand cathedral organ rang out, filling our ears with rich, triumphant blocks of chords, and it was under way at last — our great Pilgrims’ Mass.’’ Kevin had come home.
If you’re brave or foolish enough to tackle the trip, WalkingtheCamino , as replete with travel tips as it is with wisdom, would be the perfect partner. Barry Oakley Barry Oakley is a former literary editor of TheAustralian.
Spanish steps: Along the Camino trail