The Magazine

Pilgrims' Progress

Another trek to Santiago?

Sep 8, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 48 • By THOMAS SWICK
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

"Location, location, location," as everyone knows, is the appropriately redundant rule of contemporary travel writing. It's proven in every bookstore, where titles on Italy and France sometimes outnumber those on the rest of the world combined.

I have a friend who believes that very few of these books ever get read. People see a book on Italy, he says, they know someone who loves Italy (who doesn't?), and so they buy the book and give it as a birthday gift or Christmas present. The recipient may put it on his coffee table, or give it to a friend who shares his affection for Vespas, but he will not feel inspired to read it

Travel books: the fruitcakes of the publishing industry.

What makes this most-favored-nation policy all the more annoying is that it doesn't even apply to the entire country. There are very few new books on southern Italy, and even fewer on northern France. (Jamais Alsace.) Publishers of travel books have reduced the world to a pair of regions that share a number of things, including a border.

Obviously, other places get written about, often by writers who've established a name, but no cottage industry grows up around them. And some countries are deemed flat-out unworthy of books, victims of a kind of geographical blacklisting. For years, a friend of mine has been shopping around an excellent travel book about Germany--a large, influential European country--only to be told that, sadly, there would be no market for it. Never mind that it would be something different, rare, enlightening, well-written. Young writers who peruse the travel shelves at Borders and Barnes & Noble cannot help but conclude that the one thing this country could use is another book on Italy or France. As with Starbucks, the more you have the more you need.

Mounting a small challenge to the Franco-Italian hegemony is Spain (another large, important European country). But it's usually the sunny south that gets the advances. When Mayle & Co. turned the travel book from an exploration of place--think Elliot Paul's The Last Time I Saw
Paris--into a guide to the good life, climate became paramount.

But it's not always Andalusia that gets into print. There exist a number of books that illustrate another rule of travel writing: You may write about the north of Spain, but only if you're walking to Santiago de Compostela.

El camino de Santiago is a route that has been traveled by pilgrims for centuries, and by foreign writers for about two decades. And not all of them have been in the travel biz. One of the first footsore scribes was Paulo Coelho, who in his wispy-mysti way walked the route in 1986. His account of this journey, The Pilgrimage, brought both him and the ancient religious tradition into the spotlight.

A pilgrimage holds an obvious attraction to writers, with its built-in narrative (will the author make it?), its cast of colorful characters, its mingling of the sacred and the profane, its themes of spirituality and quest which can be visited, repeatedly and fruitfully, during the long stretches of monotonous marching.

I know, because I walked on a pilgrimage in 1982, to the shrine of the Black Madonna in Czestochowa. I was nearing the end of two eventful years in Poland, where I had married (two months after Lech Walesa successfully led the strikes at the Gdansk shipyards) and found a job teaching English in Warsaw. In December 1981 the leaders of Solidarity were arrested and martial law was declared. It was still in effect that August when I, along with thousands of Varsovians, arrived on Plac Zamkowy for the nine-day walk to the monastery of Jasna Góra. It was the first mass gathering of Poles since the institution of martial law, and as such, it constituted not just a religious procession but a political demonstration. One that lasted for over a week and gathered steam as it moved through the country.

The experience was so rich--the pilgrims, the villages, the sermons, the stories, the hymns, the solidarity--that when I returned home I wrote a book about it. I sent it around to publishers, with no success. An editor at one house seemed to speak for all of them when he wrote that there would be little interest "in a book about a pilgrimage in Poland."

Writers love to pick apart rejection letters--questioning the reasoning, deploring the language, disagreeing, vehemently, with the verdict (it's our only defense). But in retrospect, this one seems remarkably prescient. Remember, this was 1983, still four years before Coelho's book appeared. With two words--"in Poland"--the editor, if not foresaw, at least allowed for the possibility of a pilgrimage every publisher could love.