To my doctor’s regret, I have never been a great walker. She would be happy if I just did my daily thirty minute constitutional. But even that is an effort, to say nothing of joining a club of fanatic, retired back-packers who trudge around the villages and through the forests that surround my home here in Honoré de Balzac’s “paradis terrestre”, L’Isle-Adam.
Couch-potatoes, or even writers who spend too much of their time sitting in front of a computer’s sometimes blank screen, are part of the “genus sedantarius”. Legs are useful to get us to the kitchen, the bathroom, the bedroom and through the aisles of a supermarket, but otherwise we could do without them. But some people not only like to walk; they walk MILES ! The pilgrims of Compostella, however, take the cake. 800 kms, often more, from France and across Spain to the Galician coast and the Basilica of Saint James at Compostella. You have to be nuts.
At least I thought so, until I read Jean-Christophe Rufin’s “Immortelle Randonnée. Compostelle malgré moi” (“An Immortal Hike. Compostella in spite of myself”) (Editions Guérin.Chamonix. 2013). This is the delicious account of an initially reluctant pilgrim, walking alone from Hendaye on the French border across northern Spain, doing the “Camino” for reasons he finds difficult to explain even to himself. The rave reviews of the book led me to believe that this extraordinary man, a doctor, a diplomat, a former French Ambassador to Senegal, a renowned author and recipient of literary prizes including the prestigious Goncourt, one of the forty “Immortals” of the storied French Academy, would use his chronicle as a pretext for pleasant poetic and profound philosophical musings. It is that, but so much more – and less. It is a charming, amusing, fascinating, page-turning account of his solitary journey, of the places, people and fellow-pilgrims he encountered, of the physical pain he suffered, of the boredom he endured, of the ugly cities he crossed, of the beautiful countryside he traveled through, of the reactions of inhabitants to the tramp this distinguished gentleman had become, of the stoic conditions in the low-cost lodgings available to pilgrims along the “Way”, and of the discovery of himself that was, one must suppose, the point of it all. The writing is superb, effort-less, uncontrived. From the first chapter the reader seems to share the journey, its joys and its challenges, with someone you feel you’d love to meet, a wise, amusing, unpretentious, gifted story-teller, who seems to be a real nice guy.
Dr Rufin inevitably discusses his motivations, spells out even his own difficulty in identifying them, and admits not only the dimension of the sporting, physical challenge but the religious dimension he discovered – and abandoned – on the way. I’ll leave you with the recommendation to read the book – hopefully to be translated soon – so as to share the pleasure I had in accompanying the pilgrim on his journey and in his reflections. But I must add a few of my own. The phenomenon of Compostella deserves a couple of comments, even if they lack the pertinence of our author’s and the literary talent he displays.
The legend of the relics of St James the Apostle arriving miraculously on the Spanish coast is incredible enough. More so, for me, is the survival of the tradition of walking from France, even Germany, to visit their shrine in Compostella. People come from all over the world to do the Camino. Some “cheat” by doing it in cars, buses and taxis, but the authentic pilgrim still does it on blistered, painful foot, loaded with a backpack of minimum necessities for survival, and proudly wearing the shell that for centuries has been the distinguishing badge of the Jacquet, the devotee of Saint Jacques, St James of Compostella.
Everyone knows that many of the “pilgrims” are not even believers, let alone devout Christians. Their decision to act as though they were – although without actively participating in prayer and devotional exercises like the Masses and Vespers which they may attend as onlookers in monasteries and churches along the Camino – deserves a moment’s thought. They know that the bit about the relics is rubbish; they know that the whole thing is a stupid legend. But they wear the shell, and sometimes even dress like medieval pilgrims, and follow the protocol which lays out the approved itineraries and above all insists on getting the completion of each leg of the journey authenticated by an official stamping of their “credential”, their proof of passage and passport to the final destination of Santiago.
The motivation of such people is a genuine mystery which Rufin’s book does much to clarify. But I wonder about all the others, the Christian pilgrims who do the journey for religious reasons. How can they swallow the nonsense about St James, how can they believe there is merit, personally rewarded by God, in suffering the self-imposed mortification of foot-slogging it across Spain ? To me the answer is the power of example and emulation, the mystique of an ancient tradition, the reinforcements provided by the external trappings of the Camino, and the apotheosis of the finale in the Basilica of the Saint. I would not waste my time trying to shake the convictions of gung-ho pilgrims. They are not Believers on the Brink. There is no fork in their road. “Quo vadis ?” They know where they are going; they have made their choice. They are the genuine Jacquets, bearers of the shell, voluntary victims of centuries of superstition.