A Sense of Direction by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, review

Arthur House searches for enlightenment in a meandering modern-day pilgrim’s tale

By Arthur House

7:00AM GMT 17 Feb 2014

As the Reeve and the Miller knew well, pilgrimages can be boring without good stories to tell on the way. Walking along a prescribed route offers little chance for adventure or deviation and requires plenty of entertainment to keep the spirits up. This pilgrimage memoir sets off with a spring in its step, but the author forgets to pack light enough, and the journey turns into a bit of a slog. 

Gideon Lewis-Kraus moves to Berlin to pursue his writing in the mistaken belief that a city offering an “ocean of space and profligacy of hours” will fuel his creativity. He spends his time going to raves, mooching around and sleeping with other people’s girlfriends instead. While visiting a friend in Tallinn, he drunkenly agrees to walk the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, the first of three pilgrimages, or “exercises in pointless direction” that concern the rest of the book. 

I rather wish he’d stayed in Berlin. In 50 brilliant early pages he captures beautifully the seductive appeal of that city’s Lotus-eating demi-monde with its “rotating cast of international dubiety” and “demented relaxations into morning”. I wanted to get to know Alix better, who “talked in big impressionistic clouds and then gesticulated in their vicinity to disperse them”, or spend more time with Delia, who “had a wide balcony and no discernible line of work”. Of course, had the author stayed in Berlin, he wouldn’t have written a book at all. 

And so our secular pilgrim sets off. But why? To focus on something, to put aside the desires and distractions of modern life, for a sense of achievement, and to have a good think about things (such as his troubled relationship with his father, a gay rabbi who came out in his forties). But none of these reasons feel wholly satisfactory, either to the reader or the author. By the end of the book he’s still wondering whether pilgrimage was just another elaborate diversion. 

At first, though, motives don’t matter. The idea for the initial pilgrimage is spawned while on a Baltic bender, so the section about the Camino feels correspondingly spontaneous and fun. There’s enough competitive badinage between the author and his friend, and enough colourful fellow-travellers, to see the reader through to Santiago, even if it means putting up with the occasional high-flown sentiment about pilgrimage expiating anxiety, or what it means to be part of a mobile community of suffering.

It is when Lewis-Kraus gets a taste for this pilgrimage business and decides to go on a second one – a miserable, largely solitary trudge around 88 pretty-much-identical temples on a rainy Japanese island – that the book starts to lose its way. It’s partly because this second trip is no fun at all. Sentences like “It started out well but quickly became a terrible, long, boring day” crop up rather a lot. And it’s not an awful enough experience to be a source of humour, either. The worst thing that happens is that he has to bunk down for the night in a temple. I kept hoping he’d get eaten by wild animals, or at least kidnapped. 

But the book also founders here when you realise that, for Lewis-Kraus, going on pilgrimages is really all about writing a book about going on pilgrimages. Just before the traipse around Shikoku, he lets slip that he wants to write “something at once intimate and theoretical, something about restlessness and purpose”. He’s always taking notes and telling us that he’s taking notes, signalling the process of writing as clearly as the ubiquitous yellow arrows that point the way to Santiago. There can’t be many things as gruelling as going on a pilgrimage, but one of them is writing a book. The reader must endure a step-by-step, note-by-note account of both. 

It’s hardly surprising, then, that the final expedition, which involves celebrating Rosh Hashanah in Ukraine with his brother and father, seems contrived (indeed, Lewis-Kraus persuades his father to come “for the book”). The resulting forgiveness and understanding between father and sons is no doubt cathartic for the author but feels staged and hokey to the reader, and the attempt to join the dots between physical and emotional journeys fails to convince. 

“I think I only like travel writing when it’s not about travel at all but rather about friendship, lies, digression, amateurism, trains and sex,” says Lewis-Kraus midway. I agree, and I wish he’d put more of those things in his book. Trains would have got us there quicker, at least.

A Sense of Direction

Gideon Lewis-Kraus 

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