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A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful, by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, One Books, RRP£8.99 / Riverhead, RRP$26.95, 384 pages
If we want to find out what we take to be real, what we assume to be of the utmost value to acknowledge,” psychoanalyst Adam Phillips wrote in his essay “Narcissism, For and Against”, “then we must attend above all to what we think of ourselves as being on the run from.”
Part memoir, part travelogue, part philosophical inquiry, A Sense of Direction is the account of American journalist Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s valiant attempt to resolve this conundrum. As he travels from one country to another, embarking on one pilgrimage route after another, each more gruelling in different ways than the last, he is determinedly hopeful of finding out what he is “on the run from” and, by extension, what is of the “utmost value”.
Born in 1980 and raised in New Jersey, the son of not one but two rabbis, Lewis-Kraus at first believes that fleeing San Francisco for Berlin at the age of 27 is a “kind of preemptive strike”: an effort to escape the resentful self he does not want to end up as at the age of 47, a flight “spurred at least in part by my fantasy that I might be able to stave off future regret”.
There is just the right measure here of the knowing, the self-deluding and the knowingly self-deluding for us not to write this book off as simply a male take on the path-to-enlightenment banalities of, say, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. Outer journey as metaphor for inner journey teeters perilously close to cliché. Fortunately Lewis-Kraus is too good a writer to fall into the more obvious traps: his ear for dialogue is sharp and funny, his observations of others are astute without being cruel, his anxieties genuinely endearing.
Berlin turns out to be “an experiment in total freedom from authority, an infinitely long weekend with your parents out of town”. Those in his circle rarely go to bed before breakfast, and usually it will be with someone other than the person they went to bed with the night/morning before. “It felt like an anti-gravity chamber. The old crimes licensed you to ignore the claims of the past; the low cost of living licensed you to ignore the demands of the present; and the future was something that would happen when we moved back to New York.”
Tiring of unfettered hedonism, he heads for Spain with his friend Tom to walk the 500km pilgrimage route of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. When they’re not nursing blisters, they’re quoting poetry. They squabble and make up like an old married couple. They encounter an assortment of oddballs, such as the young Hungarian David with his “magisterial but contextless command of outdated American idioms”, or JBap, “an unwashed saint/murderer type [who] has the stench of the abattoir, a bushel of beard, and a small gym bag presumably stuffed with unmatched body parts.”
Next comes the O-Henro, a 1,200km pilgrimage of the 88 temples of the Japanese island of Shikoku. Driving rain, freezing cold, a diet of rice balls, miles upon miles of road: Shikoku is anything but hedonistic. Yet, as Lewis-Kraus reflects, “the self-discovery of austere travel can be as selfish as it can be selfless . . . every quest is also an evasion.”
The book’s last pilgrimage is to Uman, Ukraine, where 40,000 Hasidic Jews gather for Jewish New Year. Here, on the edge of a destroyed Jewish cemetery, Lewis-Kraus finally confronts the specific “other” of his gay father, whom, before this trip, he has not seen for 18 months and with whom he has been painfully embattled for years. What he comes to accept is that there will be “no grand gesture of repudiation, no final grace . . . nothing you can do now that makes all future cost considerations fall away, no way to know what you might regret.”
A Sense of Direction is a brave, honest work of self-reckoning. There is so much sincerity and warmheartedness in this pilgrim’s progress that it’s easy to overlook its occasional slippages into portentousness or laddishness. Lewis-Kraus’s endeavour to find out what he’s escaping from is sincere, touchingly naively so at times. “There is no such thing as knowing, once and for all, where you stand with someone. Life has no fixed points. But pilgrimage does; that is the point.”
Rebecca Abrams is author of ‘Touching Distance’ (Picador)