The Santiago Pilgrimage by Jean-Christophe Rufin

Translated by Malcolm Imrie and Martina Dervis

Reviewed by Terence Jagger

Monsieur Rufin is an impressive man, having founded Médecins sans Frontières, been an ambassador for France in Senegal, written extensively in various genres, winning the Prix Goncourt, and was one of the youngest ever members of the Académie Française. I reviewed a novel of his recently – Checkpoint and here is a work which is a travel book on the surface, but with a generous dollop of philosophy and psychology as well.

The book is very definitely, even concretely, about the experience of walking the road to Santiago di Compostela, covering such matters as uncomfortable socks, irritating company, and snoring in hostels, but it also much more importantly about the effect it has on people, the different reasons different individuals take it on.  But it is emphatically not a travelogue or a guide. There is no itinerary, no map, no list of things to take.  Here you will find no recommended places to stay, no advice on getting to your starting point or the best reading matter.

He starts with disabusing the reader of a few notions – the way is not ‘an ancient path winding through meadows, worm over many centuries by the feet of solitary pilgrims’. Nor is it one route – there are many starting points and many variations, and many reasons for participating. But an important start is to get the credencial, an essential document for staying in the hostels en route and for recording (and therefore proving and celebrating, if you are so lucky) your progress and success.

The pilgrims of Saint James, called Jacquets in French, are not always poor, far from it, but they behave as if they were.  One might connect this behaviour with the first of three vows which, along with chastity and obedience, has marked monastic life since the Middle Ages; one could also, more simply, call it stinginess. … Of course you will also meet many people who arrange an extremely comfortable pilgrimage for themselves, moving from hotel to hotel in luxury coaches and accommodating taxis.  The Jacquets tend to say sanctimoniously that Each follows the path in his own way. But it soon becomes obvious that behind this display of tolerance lies the unshakeable contempt of the ‘real’ pilgrim for the ‘fake’ one.

As he walks, Rufin goes through various stages, and admits that the walking itself, and the elapse of time, plays an essential role in shaping you: The Camino is time’s alchemy on the soul. So those who start just a hundred kilometres from Santiago – the minimum distance required to get the compostela, the Latin certificate of completion – attract contempt. The real pilgrims start in one of several places in the Pyrenees, or further back in their home countries – or they opt to do the shorter Primitivo from Oviedo, which is honoured because it is both mountainous and demanding, and has the historical validation that the first pilgrim, King Alphonso, started there in the ninth century.

Rufino starts at Hendaye, walking 800 kilometres along the Camino del Norte, not the most popular route, but a well known one, which he felt would be a serious challenge but not the most popular, with a good variety of scenery and interest. He is quickly absorbed into the Camino:

it won’t take long for the Way to rob you of your modesty as well as your dignity. Without becoming an animal you are no longer entirely human. This could be the definition of the pilgrim. … you are now nothing and nobody, just a poor pilgrim whose actions are of no account. No one sees the pilgrim.

He visits pleasant towns and charming countryside, but then finds that like many long established routes, the pilgrim’s path becomes a motorway, or an industrial estate, and the grimness of this shocks him terribly, clashing with his preconceptions and his desires. But leaving Bilbao and Cantabria behind him, he enters Asturias, where he also enters another stage of his personal transformation. I would not say he becomes religious in any conventional sense, but he becomes determined to see every church and chapel, however remote or broken down, or locked up by a grumbling concierge. He also meets more fellow pilgrims – that is, either on the walk itself, or when he lodges in a hostel – but he often camps, not enjoying the snores of others, or the bad manners and ill tempers of some of the hostel wardens. On one occasion, he stays at a monastery where magnificent accommodation turns out not to be for pilgrims, but for paying, coach borne tourists – the duty of hospitality to pilgrims being met by much more basic rooms elsewhere!

So he walks on, more and more pilgrims joining as the routes converge or he passes through other, less demanding starting points, and he sees the non-walking tourist in ever larger numbers. He observes and meditates on love, loss, and on blisters, rucksack straps, and the need for a good drying room.  He moves briefly into a Zen stage of acceptance, even joy, but it does not last. But he does achieve something important: I was looking for nothing when I set off for Santiago de Compostela, and I found it. And he found great beauty and human warmth as well, like the incomparable alternative route above Campiello, and the wonderful lunch and advice provided by the woman shopkeeper there.

At last, he approaches Santiago itself. Disappointed by the popularity of the French or Royal Way, which joined his route, and which meant that accommodation was scarce and crowded, Rufin clearly finds the end of the walk less of a climax and more of an ordeal. At one point in the forest, pilgrims passing set off an automatic recorded announcement for an hotel in the next town.  He has left the ‘Buddhism’ of Asturias behind, and now the world is marked by Catholic symbols and values, and also secular ones. The descent into Santiago is a particular trial – where he feels priority has been given to everyone except the pilgrim – and worse is to come. The souvenir trade ‘spreads like a leprosy’, pilgrims feel alone and more out of place than ever.  Even in the cathedral, kilometre zero, tourists crowd out the pilgrims from the Mass.

Rufin ends with his own assessment of the Way, and of his book:

It is wrong, or just too easy, to think that a journey like this is simply a journey and nothing more.  I would not be able to explain the workings of the Way, nor what it truly represents. I only know it is alive and that you cannot say anything except everything, as I have tried to do in this book. But then the essential part is missing, and I know it. That is why, sometime soon, I’ll set off again.  And so will you.

Jean-Christophe Rufin,  The Santiago Pilgrimage  (Maclehose Press, 2017). 978-1848667808,  234pp, paperback.

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