Christopher Howse

To be a pilgrim

To make the pilgrimage less grim, avoid the Pyrenees — and your fellow travellers, advises Jean-Christophe Rufin

To be a pilgrim
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The Santiago Pilgrimage: Walking the Immortal Way

Jean-Christophe Rufin, translated by Martina Dervis and Malcolm Imrie

MacLehose Press, pp. 235, £

In his friendly and beguiling voice, Jean-Christophe Rufin explains (in a way that reminded me of the pre-journey relish of Camilo José Cela’s Journey to the Alcarria) that, before setting off on foot for Santiago de Compostela, he went to a little shop in Paris and joined the Association of Friends of St James. I have sometimes toyed with the idea of starting an Association of Enemies of St James. I suspect that in his worse, or better, moods Rufin might join.

It’s not St James who’s the problem but his friends. Look at the evidence. Rufin walks to Santiago, but chooses the northern route from San Sebastian along the coast. He won’t go the ordinary route, from Roncevaux in the Pyrenees along the so-called French Way, partly because it is dull and often haunted by heavy-goods vehicles, but principally because he can’t bear walking with other pilgrims. I’m with him there. They wear shorts and smell (and Rufin dislikes body odour, even his own), and they have gone on pilgrimage for a reason, often to do with an unhappy love life.

Rufin, a novelist and physician who has devoted many years to humanitarian endeavour in foreign lands, most of all couldn’t bear sleeping in crowded hostels, or rather, not sleeping, for he is insomniac at the best of times and attracts snorers as ailurophobes attract cats. Driven to shelter in a hostel, he is greeted by a cyclist rubbing smelly brown ointment on to smellier callused feet. ‘A certain nasal tone in his voice made me suspect two things: that he was German, which was fine with me, but more importantly that he belonged to the vast international brotherhood of snorers.’ So Rufin carried a light tent and, having sensibly en route posted home his cooking gear to get his pack below three kilos, put up with the nuisance of having to walk two or three miles for his morning coffee.

He’s very good on themes of pedestrian travel, such as the invisibilty of pilgrims, discounted by sedentary folk as transient untouchables. It is this that first gives him

the courage for what the Indians call open defecation, in a municipal park. No one notices.

Rufin’s descriptions are impressionistic for the very good reason that, as he admits, he has forgotten the details, because he did not take notes. This turns out to be a master stroke. Most pilgrim-writers (and dozens of accounts of the Camino flop off the presses at monthly intervals) tell you things — about history and towns and lodgings and meetings. The things are seldom interesting.

Recently I reread As I Walked out one Midsummer Morning, Laurie Lee’s account of a secular pilgrimage across Spain. Apart from the violence of the sun and the chthonic vitality of the people, you could be anywhere. Yet it leaves a vivid impression, because the reader fills it in, as we do here with poor Rufin in a ‘fog of nausea and fatigue’ limping in the wrong-size shoes (bought in Guernica) through ‘charmless suburbs and alongside motorways’ or beside miles of chemical pipes in Cantabria.

But just as vivid as these stumbling nightmares are the clifftop walks, the wind from the sea, the wooded mountains and the rain in which (with waterproof trousers) Rufin likes to walk. The reader is moreover convinced that the excellently fluent translation by the team of Martina Dervis and Malcolm Imrie has preserved the attractive, slightly buttonholing style of the original.

But then Rufin passes into a quasi-Buddhist state. ‘To an outsider, I must have looked half-witted,’ he writes of this phase of his way, through mountains, where, ‘I may not have seen God, but I did at least feel his breath.’ My heart sank at this, for ‘pseudo-Buddhist’ encounters with the ‘Fundamental Principle’ (in Rufin’s words) are among the things that my Association of Enemies of St James hopes to counter.

Did his Camino change Rufin? If anything, he says that he learnt from lightening his backpack that fear drives us to take possession of too much: a spare sweater for the Camino, or, in life, less tangible defences against the hardships of existence. But he is honest enough to admit that ‘the perceptible effects of the pilgrimage soon fade’. My own solution is to eschew the path to Santiago and to make every journey in Spain a pilgrimage. Unlooked-for graces are no less available on the road to Sória or Sepúlveda than on the Camino to Compostela. And, as Rufin found from the Camino, the pilgrim, once home, itches to set off again.

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