The dramatic revival in recent years of interest in the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route to the (supposed) tomb of St James the Apostle in Galicia, feeds on the publicity provided by YouTube, television documentaries, feature films and websites offering Camino wet-weather and lightweight walking gear. But it is also due to a heartening extent to books. Shirley MacLaine’s undemanding pursuit of her deepest ‘self’ brought US fans galore to the Camino; the magical fantasies of Paulo Coelho drew Brazilians in thousands; then, in 2006, came the sardonic German TV personality Hans-Peter (Hape) Kerkeling’s lively and unusual I’m Off Then, which brought a rush of Germans to Santiago, in a process known as the ‘HP effect’.
The Santiago Pilgrimage is the English translation (a slightly showy one: who needs the word ‘lacustrine’?) of a book by Jean-Christophe Rufin that has had great success in France, adding to the considerable number of French pilgrims on the Camino. It is a wonderful piece of writing, full of perception – of landscapes, people, self – about a journey based on solitude and physical endeavour into an interior world. There’s a good dose of chatty demystification and anecdotes that make you laugh aloud. But Rufin can also write in fine lyrical mode, though he never goes on too long about anything.
He is an extraordinary figure, a celeb in mufti – not only a winner of the Prix Goncourt in 2007 for Brazil Red, but also a doctor, a founder member of Médecins Sans Frontières, the head of an anti-malnutrition charity, a former French ambassador to Senegal and in his day