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The Camino is full of strange and wonderful experiences, and this is just another one of these moments. I’m not known as someone who bestows blessings on strangers, or one who appreciates poorly made timber products for that matter. But here in Spain, these things become so much more than just superficial. Somehow I catch the emotion behind what I see, the true spirit behind the words, and in this case, the actions, and it seems to make all the difference. Things become vibrant and the world becomes alive.

The second time I came to Australia, I thought of it as my great adventure. I had travelled around the world in pursuit of a relationship, leaving family, friends and employment behind. It was a big risk. So when my relationship with Stephanie continued to grow from strength to strength and I had successfully established myself in Sydney, I really thought that risk had paid off quite nicely.

Then two friends of mine announced that they were climbing to Mount Everest base camp. Suddenly my grand adventure seemed little more than a exchange of one homogenous environment for another, my lifestyle just a generic middle-class wage-slave existence in a metropolitan city.

One of the great pleasures of writing this blog is that occasionally I get to share in someone else’s adventure, read their thoughts and feelings while undertaking incredible challenges.

Brad Kyle explains in the book’s opening the circuitous journey taken by the eventual inspiration that led to him setting off along the Camino trail in Spain. Initially he learned of the pilgrimage trail from an anonymous girl one summers day in London, who introduced him to Paulo Coelho‘s The Pilgrimage. Following the death of his father eight years later, Kyle is reminded of that happy evening when he encounters a second book – Shirley MacLaine’s The Camino – A Journey of the Spirit, which finally sets him on the path to Santiago.

Between jobs, feeling adrift and in possession of some savings, Kyle flies from Melbourne to London and then across the water to the eventual starting point Saint Jean Pied de Port. Suddenly conscious that he may well be unprepared for the road ahead – the foul weather, steep terrain, blisters! – he also becomes acutely aware of just how alone he is, having set himself the challenge of marching across two countries over a period of five weeks.

Physical discomfort and the vagaries of hostel curfews aside, Kyle soon begins to get the hang of life on the pilgrim trail. Initial fleeting encounters with fellow travellers soon grow into genuine relationships. The spectacular scenery and encounters with some local animals – at one point Kyle gives a silent thank you to Dr. Harry for his advice on greeting horses – soon dwarfs the aches and pains. There are even stirrings of romance. In effect, this is a story of one man’s rediscovery of what makes life worth living.

Kyle describes his journey in a very personable and thoughtful manner. Often his reminiscences are grounded in terms that can be easily understood. For example he has a tendency of comparing certain experiences to popular films, such as Finding Nemo, Men in Black and Amelie.

In fact the style of writing here is deeply personal, with the emotions described obviously keenly felt. At times it reads much like an attempt by Bill Bryson to rewrite Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. The travelogue has moved on from overtly literary fare designed for the consumption of 19th century high class salons, evolving into personal accounts leavened with a lot of humour. I had a strong sense of familiarity while reading Memoirs of a Pilgrim – it felt as intimate as reading a friend’s blog on some far-flung adventure.

This is a touching, heart-felt and engaging story of an incredible journey through a timeless landscape.

With thanks to the author for my review copy.

“Why did you leave Ireland”?

“I was sick,” he said. “I was sick of Ireland, he laughed.”

“Seriously Michael.”

“Seriously, if you knew anything about the country you wouldn’t ask me why I left.”

There is a moment towards the end of this book when the protagonist Katherine Procter walks down Grafton Street in Dublin late at night, crosses the Ha’Penny Bridge over the River Liffey, continues on towards Blackhall Place and finally reaches her destination of Carnew Street. I smirked to myself when I read this and remarked to Stephanie that you could tell this book was not set in the present day.

Eight months ago I was mugged at knife-point in Dublin. Every day after that I was scared to go out on to the streets at night. I desperately wanted to leave the city. The date of our departure for Australia seemed an eternity away.  When I think of Dublin now, that is what I remember, an unending, oppressive sense of fear. In a very real sense, I saw my travelling to Australia as escape.

Katherine is also looking to escape. Born and raised in Wexford, she has left her husband and child and fled to Spain. When she thinks of Ireland she remembers the dead relationship between Tom the man she married and her herself; her estranged son, who takes after his father in every respect; and finally she remembers the local people in the area who hated her family for being Anglo-Irish Protestants, who burned down her house when she was only a child. Her own mother left Ireland afterwards, terrified of the Irish and refusing to return from London. Now Katherine has followed in her foot-steps.

Barcelona is a world away from Enniscorthy. Katherine discovers an enclave of bohemian artists and begins to receive training in becoming a painter herself. She meets Miguel, an enigmatic man who uses art to frame the political upheaval in Spain following the Civil War and falls in love with him. Her mother sends her enough money to support herself and together with her new lover, she begins to reinvent herself, leaving her past as a member of the Irish landowner class behind.

The arrival of Irishman and Enniscorthy native Michael Graves in Barcelona puts Katherine on edge. Not only is he an insistent reminder of the life she ran away from, as a Roman Catholic he symbolises to her the same mob that attacked her home causing the breakup of her family when she was a child during ‘The Troubles’ in the South of Ireland. Furthermore he attaches himself to Katherine and Miguel from the moment they first meet him. She wakes up the first morning after encountering the Irishman to find him asleep beside her lover.

It appears that not only is her past not finished with her, but Miguel’s own history has caught up with the couple. He refuses to hide his anti-Francoist fervour, risking imprisonment. His status as a former revolutionary and a Catalan makes him a target for police intimidation. Katherine cannot understand why he insists on reliving his hatred for the Spanish fascist regime, why he cannot simply plan a future for them together. She slowly comes to recognize that Miguel’s wartime activities are not so different from the actions of the landless Catholics who attacked her family thirty years ago.

This is a beautifully written first novel by Colm Tóibín. The parallels drawn between the Irish and Spanish Civil Wars are cannily illustrated, with Katherine’s blinkered inability to recognize the hatreds of her own upbringing causing her to view the historical wounds of Spain as exotic curiosities. Tóibín’s writing is reminiscent of John Banville’s European Irish fiction, with protagonists finding inescapable echoes of Ireland on the Continent.

I strongly identified with Katherine as my own relationship with my homeland has become twisted by fear, despite knowing how irrational that feeling is. Funnily enough I continue to meet Michael Graves all over Sydney, the Irish accent reappearing at the oddest times. This is the life of an emigrant, I suppose, finding reminders of home wherever I go. More importantly though I am no longer afraid of returning home. Australia, and in part writing for this blog,  allowed me the opportunity to heal.

This book is beautifully observed, thematically insightful and ferries its haunted protagonists to a welcome peace of sorts.

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