- File Size: 5290 KB
- Print Length: 224 pages
- Publisher: e-penguin (January 27, 2011)
- Publication Date: January 27, 2011
- Sold by: PEN UK
- Language: English
- ASIN: B00AMH0Y6Q
- Text-to-Speech: Enabled
- Word Wise: Enabled
- Lending: Not Enabled
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,800,937 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Unholy Pilgrims Kindle Edition
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Top customer reviews
This book is marginally better than *The Year We Seized the Day,* the other example I've read of the genre, in that it does have some grasp of the history around the pilgrim track, and some impulses beyond looking for the next bar in every town it mentions. The personal dilemmas appear to be just as excruciating, if the physical damage to the unfortunate narrator/s is less in this case, and there's a bit more of a narrative backbone in the reappearances of TT's Muse? personal guru? New Wave guardian angel? in her Lycra skins and unshakeable serenity plus physical integrity, even if her final advice, the mantra of "Just Keep Walking" seemed a bit anti-climactic. Still, I liked the motif as a connecting thread.
Overall, the sub-genre is interesting in cf. to 2 US Camino books, the one utterly pedantic in noting prices of everything, plus distances, with very little subjective meat, the other basically How to Travel So Light You Won't Have Anything You Actually Need - including bras and the inside supports of my pack, in my case. Nice idea, and some good points, but v. minor ones. This book does at least have a better shot at the physical and spiritual-emotional dimensions mix than those.
In this, his first book, experienced in 2008 and written across the two following years, in his late twenties, Tom Trumble also explores – literally, and metaphorically, en route the stories of fellow pilgrims, Tom’s own back-story that led to his decision to go on the pilgrimage, the history of the pilgrimage, the life and legends of Saint James the Apostle who is the origin of the pilgrimage, as well as the history and prehistory of the region. It is a multifaceted achievement!
The last narrative regional thread is a rich story indeed, with a pre-history that goes back to remains of pre-Neanderthal humans, at Atapuerca, evidence of the earliest known human species in Europe (yet, typically, this is a site Trumble mentions but decides not to visit – one of several minor failures along the trail), and the prehistory of tin and copper miners, and Celts. The recorded history begins with the Ancient Greeks, followed by the Romans, and then the Goths, followed in turn by Moors invading from North Africa. The documented history is over-woven by legends of El Cid, and Charlemagne and Roland, and assorted warriors, martyrs, saints, princes, bishops, and other heroes and villains.
All of this is told with a light, but thoughtful treatment, culminating, beyond the humorous episodes and colourful characters – and occasional discrete omissions in a brave confrontation with himself, at a turning point in his life. The back-cover blurb refers to “his own very restless demons”. He finds, as perhaps most would-be pilgrims do, that he has set out on a journey only to realise that the challenges he faces on the journey, in pursuit of some possibly uncertain goal, are those he has carried with him from his ordinary, pre-pilgrimage life.
“The thing inside of me was my own doing. … This is the baggage I took to Compostela” (October 30, p 288: each “chapter” has a calendar-day as its title).
There is a lot to tell, and Tom Trumble, in my opinion, does an excellent job telling it.
(Other reviewers, elsewhere, have complained that Trumble does not give enough serious attention to the proper business of making the pilgrimage, unlike other books about El Camino, the way of the pilgrim travelling to the tomb of Saint James. I do not know of other books on this broad topic, although I am sure they exist, and have their own excellent qualities. I certainly am aware of the serious dramatized true-life 2010 film, The Way, starring Martin Sheen, inspired by the story of Sheen’s grandson Emilio Estevez’s own son Taylor. But so far I have not seen the film. My opinions of Trumble’s book are based on reading, and carefully rereading his book. I should explain that I am also aware of the many Ways of Saint James from diverse parts of Europe, westwards to Santiago de Compostela. I had some across them, and their pilgrim way-signs – the pilgrim’s cockle shell emblem – in south-west France, and southern Germany. I am also familiar with the story, or legend of Saint James the Great, one of the original Twelve Apostles, and the different ways his name appears in different languages: Jacob, in Latin, Jacobus, in German, Jacques, in French, Diego, in Spanish, Giacomo, in Italian, and so on. I also know, as does Tom Trumble, the nickname, “Boanerges”, or “Sons of Thunder”, given by Jesus to James and his brother, and fellow-apostle, John, the sons of Zebedee. There is a lot of background to Trumble’s story, and he tells this well, also.)
In some ways Unholy Pilgrims is a multi-stranded mystery. Will Tom, and his good friend Dave, reach Santiago? If they arrive, what will be their physical, emotional and mental condition? Will the mixed-bag of fellow pilgrims that they repeatedly rub up against also achieve their goals in Santiago? What is Tom’s back-story? How does it connect with his pilgrimage? How will the mysteries and conflicts of his past be resolved?
Apart from the mysteries that keep a reader pressing onwards, day by day, there are the rewards of Trumble’s deft writing, the witty remark that puts an issue in a well-worded perspective – and the events and characters along the way are often genuinely, and sometimes unwittingly, very funny. For example, on the second last day of the journey, he describes dinner at, “an eatery called El Labrador … chewing our way through the sort of stringy food you might expect to be served at a restaurant named after a dog” (October 29, p 274).
Seeing other pilgrims for the first time as he alights from a train at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, he remarks, “This was a party that looked ready for a stiff drink and a lie-down rather than an 800-kilometre haul across Spain” (p 6). (Implicitly, he includes himself in that unready party!)
On the second page, Trumble makes it absolutely clear that he is not sacrificing much, within his life (other than time, money and effort) to begin the pilgrimage.
“I was working as a data-entry operator for an energy retailer. My closest work colleague was a man who had changed his name by deed-poll to ‘John Citizen’ and walked around the office carrying a four-foot cactus. John’s competence in punching gas-meter reads into a computer was matched by his skill in stealing cutlery and condiments from the office kitchen” (p 2).
(Incidentally, in his Acknowledgements on page 310, Trumble explains that the identities of his fellow-pilgrims have been disguised, with the exception of his good friend, Dave, and Dave’s wife. We should hope that ‘John Citizen’ is also presented in disguise!)
Later, as Tom and Dave are officially enrolling themselves as pilgrims at the pilgrim office in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, near the French border, and they see the office walls full of weather charts and maps and photos and lists of accommodations, he remarks, “These people were not preparing us for a hike. They were preparing us for battle” (p 8).
(Incidentally, we can tell this is a European story, because the font specially used for page-numbering has the numeral “7” crossed, in the standard European, non-Anglo way.)
Tom’s Australian companion, and friend from undergraduate university days, Dave McNamara, is exactly the kind of talented and generous man you would want to have as a great friend, and as the instigator of the challenge, and pledge, to undertake the Camino. The two conditions of their pledge are that they will walk the whole way, and they will always take lodgings in the official pilgrim hostels or “albergues” (pronounced, in Spanish, as “ull-ber-gays”). The occasional scenes of high emotion, or danger, or emotional tension, which Dave defuses, almost instantly – by whipping out his ukulele, and creating a spontaneous and distracting sing-along – are a few of the many comic gems in the story.
Later in the story (October 13: pp 126-127), another musical highlight is the episode where Dave and Tom concoct a musical duo, “Santiago and the Moor-slayers”, regaling a local Spanish pub with renditions of “Tiny Dancer”, and Peter Allen’s “Tenterfield Sadler”, and, joined by impromptu fellow-pilgrim vocalists, singing, “Fever”, “Penny Lane”, the sultry “Habenera” from Bizet’s opera Carmen, plus a bracket of Burt Bacharach songs, “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”, sung in barbershop quartet style by an Argentinean foursome, and an extended rendition of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”. Nights along the Camino surely don’t get much more rousing than this – although the bar-room brawl that breaks out (pp 246-251) probably comes close, but with less musical interest! (Why is half of the duo’s name “Moor-slayers”? You will have to read the book to find out about this not-so-saintly nickname.)
(Incidentally, as noted, each “chapter” is a day in the calendar of the pilgrimage, supported by an amusing subtitle that highlights some aspect of that day. The undated “Epilogue” briefly describes the extra leg of Dave and Tom’s long walk, beyond Santiago to Cape Finisterre named in Latin by the Romans as “the end of the Earth” with a hint of a final conclusion: pp 306-308. This is a cleverly crafted story!)
Some of the fellow pilgrims that Tom and Dave meet, repeatedly, are only briefly described, and referred to by amusingly descriptive nicknames. “Bonjour” is the French woman who resembles an elderly Edith Piaf, and speaks no word of English but is always warmly cheerful and full of greetings (pp 42-43). A tall Swiss man with protuberant eyes is also known by his constant greeting, “Hi, guys!” (p 43). The perpetually chain-smoking but almost entirely speechless Frenchman is known as “French pipes”. His only spoken word, under considerable stress of circumstances, is – with great appropriateness “Merde!” (pp 43, 282).
Other pilgrims have more prominent roles. “Warren” is a rough-and-ready foul-mouthed macho Australian, undertaking the pilgrimage before entering Duntroon, Australia’s military academy. He sees the pilgrimage as a way of building fitness, drinking, and finding casual sex (pp 7, 15, 53-54). “Boris” is a bearded Canadian whose only focus is the sex he can find along the way (pp 88-91). “Edward” is an almost repellant, insufferably pompous Australian over-achiever who is undertaking the pilgrimage as one of several diverse pilgrimages in Asia and elsewhere (pp 162ff). “Johan” is a German, with a lot of experience of Eastern mysticism. For him, the pilgrimage is a holiday from his full-time job as a meditation guru in Innsbruck (p 102). Rather later they meet “Abdul”, a Pakistani, whose reading about the “Alhambra Palace” in Grenada, one of the great cultural achievements of the Moors during their occupation of Spain, has led him to undertake the pilgrimage as a “humble observer” – he is a Muslim, although self-confessedly perhaps not a very good one. Abdul offers interesting comparisons and contrasts with the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj – a sacred requirement of all Muslims at least once in their life (October 28, pp 263-273).
Throughout the journey, the adventures and personal goals of the diverse gaggle of fellow pilgrims provide light relief, and occasional assistance, and insight to the story as a whole. (Many of the episodes are very funny often in a lightheartedly profane way.)
These modern pilgrims are as mixed, and un-religious, in their different ways, as Chaucer’s worldly pilgrims journeying from London to Canterbury, centuries earlier. Trumble explains, “We were not the poster boys for the abstemious and devout seeking penance. We were more like vagrants looking for a street corner on which to panhandle” (p 82). At the end of the journey, when he and Dave are about to have their official compostela document authorised, Tom reflects on “the depraved and un-Christian acts that had punctuated [his] journey … the countless nights on the booze, the repeated breaking of curfew [at the pilgrim hostels], … the pub brawl, the sacrilegious compositions [songs] of the Moor-slayers … These were the acts of an unholy pilgrim” (October 31 p 295 – hence, of course, the title of the book).
Happily, they both receive their pilgrim certificates! Shortly after that, wandering a little aimlessly in Santiago, Tom feels himself “all churched out” and recognises he is, like others around him, making an uneasy “final transition from pilgrim to tourist”. He feels “like a rudderless ship that has forgotten her purpose” (November 1, p 302).
The further the journey proceeds, the more we learn about Tom, and his “demons”, his unimpressive curriculum vitae which “reads like a list of ho-hum party tricks” (p 134), his two disturbing nightmares along the way, his family and school and church experiences (his aunt had been a Catholic nun, and he was raised as a Catholic in a Church of England grammar school), his failed relationships, his attempt at a first novel which he dismisses as “crap” (p 165: although we can only wonder what a good editor could do with it), and his apparent failure to grow up into mature adulthood (solid career, marriage, children).
And then (without revealing here the remarkable details) almost at the end of the journey – we might almost say “quest” – Tom reveals that for six years (!) he has suffered from panic attacks (October 30 pp 285-289)! Amidst the comic characters, profanity, hijinks, drinking, and general misbehaviour, and the physical hardships of the road, and the byways into history and legend, this feels (at least to me, and I suspect it will feel for many readers) to be the real crisis of the book. The frankness with which Trumble outlines his experiences and reactions at this point is striking, and impresses me as being extremely courageous! It turns the book from an amusing, sometimes slightly naughty, picaresque ramble across the north of Spain into an interesting and valuable human document – valuable for Tom, perhaps, as much as for the reader!
Separately from this, but importantly, early in the book, Trumble encounters a quirky young woman (p 9), known as “Sally”, notable for her brightly-coloured leggings, and her trippy-hippy New Age-mystical, or quasi-occult, Hindu-Oriental ideas. (After his second or third encounter with Sally, Tom is unsure if she is “a clairvoyant or a charlatan”: p 85. Indeed! Later, her tells her to her face that he thinks she is “from another planet”: p 256.)
When she first speaks to him she remarks, “I just thought you should know that your fourth and fifth chakras are shattered” (October 1, p 18).
After asking what “chakras” are, and being told they are “focal points in your fourth dimension that govern the reception and transmission of energy”, Tom asks, “ … how do I fix my bloody chakras?”
Sally gives Tom the ostensibly profound advice, “Just keep walking” (p 20). (Perhaps surprisingly, near the end of the journey, Abdul the Muslim pilgrimage-observer also says, “Just keep heading west to Santiago”: p 273.)
Near the end of the book, this advice is, to Tom’s surprise (and probable annoyance) repeated (p 307), after Sally has given other advice to Tom, in particular suggesting that, “I’d think about giving up those cigarettes! … It’s inhibiting your flow of prana and you only do it because you’re bored” (p 259). (The Hindu term “prana” refers to a life-force, or, perhaps more prosaically, breathing and heart-beating. Cigarettes certainly inhibit prana!)
Trite as Sally seems to be, there is no doubt that she is totally sincere, despite her elfin eccentricities. Interestingly, she is also very humanly connected – en route with a local Spanish fireman, in between meditation and walking. Of course, Sally’s repeated advice to Tom – “Just keep walking” is reminiscent of the old joke.
Q. What is the secret of a long life?
A. Don’t die.
In fact, “Just keep walking” is probably good advice for everybody!
Finally (because I know if you have read this far you will still be wondering) I can say that, happily, Trumble does, in a way, sort out his life, despite the unlikely chances of this having happened just because he walked 800 kilometres across Spain. But HOW this happens, and to what END, and what else happens along the way, I will leave it to you to find out when you read a book which I heartily commend to you.
Very highly recommended, for many reasons. (Did I mention it is funny? And serious?)
Dr John Gough – Deakin University (retired) – firstname.lastname@example.org