Writers on Pilgrimage
Edited by Katherine Govier
McClelland & Stewart,
257 pages, $32.99
Solo: Writers on Pilgrimage assembles 15 essays about journeys undertaken because of some compelling, possibly spiritual need on the writer's part to make just this trip. "Just -- high stakes," editor Katherine Govier says in her introduction. That's what she was looking for: trips where something that mattered to the writer was on the line.
The entries are of varying quality, as one might expect, and some are very fine. But the book as a whole is also interesting, particularly just now. When our outlook is so grim, when religion wears so often its ugliest face, when discord is everywhere and our ability to manage anything -- nations, human rights and security, the global economy, the planet -- is in grave doubt, where do we go? What kind of solo pilgrimage does it make sense to undertake?
The concerns that motivated these contemporary pilgrimages should resonate with the concerns of readers who feel that an often grim world is getting grimmer. Even the sense of joy or time-out or escape, where that is present, doesn't dispel the sense of bad times that hovers over this book. This is partly because of where Govier's other pilgrims are coming from and going to, because willy-nilly they form a company. Unlike Chaucer's pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales, they have no common destination and do not gather at the tavern as evening falls. Maybe that's it: Maybe being headed off in all directions creates a chorus for our darkening times.
A number of entries in this international travel book spring directly from the writer's engagement with sites of violence and injustice. Some are journeys into sport and/or nature. Some are undertaken on behalf of other writers, in homage, or are associated with the author's work. Few involve religious belief.
Czech writer Ivan Klima goes back to the concentration camp where he spent most of his childhood, but can recognize it only when he looks out upon the unchanged "landscape of my childhood," which when he was young he "saw every day, yet could never enter, a landscape that symbolized the freedom they had taken from me." Returned to that point of view and that yearning, he feels with "a sudden acuteness . . . the essence of the demonic possession of those days, the essence, indeed, of all demonic possession."
Forbidden entry is a theme also in Burmese-born U.S. writer Wendy Law-Yone's The Old Burma Road. Her journey along this newly reopened "relic" of a road -- a much-storied route for commerce and war and Buddhist pilgrims -- takes the writer across southwest China all the way to the Burmese border she cannot safely cross. "And yet what had we come all this way for, really, except to peer across the barricades with inchoate longing?"
Thus, though Law-Yone quotes the Alexandrine poet Constantine Cavafy in praise of pilgrimage ("When you set out for Ithaca/ hope your road is a long one") and relishes her own quotations ("The Burmese way, with its pauses for recreation . . . is closer to Chaucer than to Dante"), she cannot believe Cavafy's promise: "Arriving there is what you're destined for." And "there," the beloved country, is now a place where "fear . . . is a habit."
Canadian novelist Joy Kogawa, another victim of political insanity, returns to her childhood home in Vancouver, the house described so lovingly in Obasan and lost in this country's shameful treatment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War. Kogawa counts it a blessing that a memorial reading could be staged there before the house was destroyed. Kogawa's Christianity goes unstated here, but this gentle essay is the only one in which the writer's faith is palpable.
Australian Kate Grenville, who won an Orange Prize for her novel The Idea of Perfection, pursues her convict-turned-gentleman ancestor, discovering a "villa" metamorphosed to "fortress" on appropriated, "thoroughly used" aboriginal land: "Wilderness transforming itself under my feet into living room." Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah, who now lives in South Africa, finds Oases of Peace in the few heavily guarded hotels in which weapons are forbidden, and makes a forlorn effort to promote peace among the warlords of Somalia. (This is the one country in the world, Farah reports, whose borders mean nothing -- no one checks papers -- because the chaos within is absolute.) Irish-born author Michael Collins leaves a windowless "high-tech bunker" at Microsoft for an "air-hungry" marathon in the Himalayas: "Survival is my sole goal." Irish novelist Roddy Doyle offers a lovely, exuberant piece about Ireland and the World Cup. Although others have sacrificed to follow the team in pursuit of that Holy Grail, Doyle watches and drinks and exults in a pub back home. The cup isn't really necessary: "Qualifying" is bliss enough to unleash a benign national pride.
British writer Andrew Grieg goes fishing -- and drinking -- in Scotland to honour a dead writer; he doesn't catch the fish, which will amuse Norman MacCaig, "looking down from a place I don't believe in." It's another beauty. Margaret Atwood -- brilliant, witty and under the weather with what she fears is West Nile Virus -- reflects on pilgrimages, travels for a friend who wrote about but never visited "the sublime landscapes" of the Franklin Expedition, finds global warming, and returns with a pebble she buries in Gwendolyn MacEwen Park in Toronto.
Nino Ricci goes to the Galapagos, filmmaker Gail Singer goes to Hollywood and Douglas Coupland just "kills time" in airplanes. Indian poet Vijay Nambisian stands apart from the comic chaos wrought by Hindu pilgrims, and Mark Kurlansky -- unbeliever -- is ravished by Gregorian chants in a monastery where "God has no ears."
The book's editor, novelist Katherine Govier, "mystified by the peace I felt practising the sword art, with its heart of violence," goes to Japan in pursuit of a great swordsman. She suggests that Musashi, also a writer, "sought to perfect his style. Killing was a by-product." But she finds that her query about "the dichotomy" between warrior and "compassionate Buddhist" is dismissed: "Do you see a peaceful side in his work? There is none. He killed a lot of people." That the editor's own troubled pilgrimage involves violence and art and Zen is an indication of this book's impetus and thrust, and of its interest to us now.
Constance Rooke is a literary critic who lives in Toronto.