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A Sense of Direction

This first-rate travel book is – like all the best travel books – most fascinating when it has the author at its center.

(Page 2 of 2)

His experiences during the first two grueling pilgrimages in Spain and Japan are profound; but they only resound after the fact. That is, in Japan, he spends a lot of his miserable time remembering – with terrible fondness – his miserable time on the Buen Camino, minus the misery: “For two days what I mostly think about is the Camino. More specifically, I try to remember if it was ever this bad in Spain. I forget the plot of any given movie within hours of seeing it, but I can remember an almost alarming level of detail about the Camino, every village we passed through, how long we walked each day, where we stayed, where we met Tim and Roman and Nora and Alina.”

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His third “pilgrimage” is his attempt to dissolve or unloose his gnawing resentment against his father, a resentment that has been darting in and out of Lewis-Kraus’s thoughts from the opening pages – a real but unsatisfactory and unhappy resentment because there’s so little he can hang it on. His father only came out as gay at the age of 46, when Lewis-Kraus was 19. The father has, to his son’s annoyance, been revitalized in his gay identity, as if making up for lost time.

Lewis-Kraus and his brother meet their father in Ukraine for a Holocaust memorial gathering. The Lewis-Kraus contingent do not fit in with the thousands of Hassidic participants during Rosh Hashanah, but on a walk through a Jewish graveyard they are able to finally have “the talk” the writer has been seeking – a discussion that Lewis-Kraus has been hoping will clarify the meaning of the family’s emotional upheaval that came with the father’s new life.

One of our happiest pleasures is witnessing Lewis-Kraus’s continual uneasy revelations, his continual lively, cantankerous conversations with friends and family, his less-continual distracting side-interests, including the young woman from Shanghai who doesn’t want to be the muse of his pilgrimage-obsession. He has to sort through his confusion by his lonesome, but one of the graces of his narration is that he usually gives everyone else – fellow pilgrims, friends and family – the best and most clear-sighted lines: “I wondered then if the difference between people who believed in preparation and those who believed in proof, like the antagonism David described between those who believed in rehearsal and those who believed in spontaneity, wasn’t the difference between those who worked constantly for something that would endure and those who sought to capture something that occurred once.” Lewis-Kraus simultaneously accomplishes both on the page: catching what will endure and what will only happen once.

I’m a convert, not only to pilgrimages but to this first-rate book. Lewis-Kraus has helped me realize, in my own case, some of the mysterious attractions of difficult traveling in Russia, and to understand why my pilgrimages to discover the long-gone Tolstoy and Chekhov are frustratingly incomplete in the moment but emotionally rich ever after.
Bob Blaisdell reviews books for the Monitor and the San Francisco Chronicle. He has edited dozens of anthologies for Dover Publications.


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