Towards Compostela: Walking the Camino de Santiago by Catharina van Bohemen (The Cuba Press, 2020), pp., $38; Prague in My Bones by Jindra Tichy (Quentin Wilson Publishing, 2021), 344pp., $45
Travel books work best for me when the narrator, the reader’s guide or travel companion, is the kind of personality with whom one would like to travel in the real. Robert Byron, through whose Road to Oxiana I have wandered many times in the company of its wry, bewildered, self-deprecating author, is one such fellow traveller. A strain of empathy deriving from mutual misunderstanding—a generous and good-humoured accommodation of difference—is the hallmark of Byron’s encounters with people of all stripes, often in the most discommodious locales. So, too, one never gets the sense that he is appropriative or selective in his passages through Elsewhere; rather, he is at once discerning and appreciative. And what I need from a travel companion I need from a literary one, too.
Catharina van Bohemen’s Ockham long-listed Towards Compostela begins with a well-appointed family home in that small part of Auckland where sunlight streams through French doors and illuminates well-to-do bricolage: racquets, violins, flat green lawns, pear trees. But soon the idyll is infested by a creeping sense of dissatisfaction, dilapidation and division, manifesting in tatty soft furnishings, unmown grass, difference of spousal opinion about a book and possibly a change in financial circumstances. The author, having returned from Australia to meet the author of the divisive volume, responds to her changing circumstances by taking herself for walks. These prompt a series of childhood memories: another house (large and well situated) with a grand piano in the drawing room and the ‘little Dutch girl’ overhearing her mother singing ‘Ave Maria’; a saffron-clad nun met at the foot of Himalayas; a coffee date with friends; an early morning tutorial on The Terrace; Anne Carson’s musings on penance. And, once more, the angry man’s book, all of which lead the lonely speaker to buy a ticket to London in order to walk the Compostela, burdened only with keepsakes from her children, to get some of what the sari-clad nun is reported to have called ‘stillness in movement … walking as meditation, as freedom, as unity’.
What do we learn of the walker’s motivation? Oddly enough, not very much, apart from what can be inferred from the not quite James Salter-esque darkening epiphanies. And motivation does matter. In the authoritative words of Pope Benedict XVI, Catholic pilgrims walk the Compostela ‘not simply to visit a place to admire its treasures of nature, art or history’ but rather ‘to step out of ourselves … to encounter God where he has revealed himself … to strengthen their spirit with the Apostle’s witness of faith and love’. If the walker does not share these convictions, why choose the Compostela rather than an equally arduous, picturesque and storied route that isn’t the outward demonstration of deeply held beliefs? And what is her relationship to such believers? Of course, van Bohemen is hardly unusual for having chosen to walk the Compostela without the hitherto requisite penitence. But despite vicariously accompanying her for hundreds of miles, I must admit I am none the wiser.
After finishing Towards Compostela I was left with the feeling that I should have enjoyed it more than I did. Questions of faith matter to me, as I suspect they do to the book’s walker, but the reader neither sees her wrestle with that mysterious angel nor walk with a limp afterwards. I found this lack of intimacy and the cool, almost cynical remove of the walker both frustrating and off-putting. Interior and exterior worlds are strictly demarcated: thoughts and feelings aren’t integrated into what is seen and heard: they are compartmentalised and expressed as commentaries or reflections on experience. Similarly, the act of remembering, especially its intimate connection with imagination, is absent from the book, an omission that reminds me of Thomas Hobbes’ intriguing suggestion that the difference between imagination and memory is ‘but a fiction of the mind’. Picaresque encounters, many of which are touching or charming, are recalled with an artificial surety; entire conversations are rendered as novelistic reported speech. Such purity of process eschews the palpable frisson that comes when, as in Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, one interiorises a confabulation of facticity and fiction. Towards Compostela might have been more powerful had it taken such a riskier but more rewarding route whereby van Bohemen’s experience, with all its richness and contingencies, was transubstantiated into language that enacts as much as it describes.
The book ends with an epilogue in which the walker is saluted by a fellow passenger on her flight from Compostela: ‘You are a real peregrina. It is an achievement. I too wish to do it someday. You will be changed.’ Surely he wasn’t referring to the walk itself—its length and so on—but to the pilgrim’s progress properly understood? And what change took place? It seems the experience crystalised van Bohemen’s vague intimations into decisiveness. But it seems to me the pilgrimage itself, so far as this book goes, simply provides a narrational continuum on which personally freighted fragmentary detail accumulates; van Bohemen shares an itinerary, destination and mode of transport with the faithful pilgrims but that is all. She gives meaning to the walk; it does not impose meaning on her. Even so, her views are frequently elegantly and evocatively expressed in Towards Compostela, a satisfyingly object volume for which designer Sarah Bolland deserves praise, as does Gregory O’Brien for his drawings and fleurons, which marvellously compliment the text. This book is a pleasure to behold.
Jindra Tichy’s Prague in My Bones recounts how cataclysmic events of European history imposed themselves on the trajectory of one woman’s life. But as the book’s title attests, it also makes claims for the indelibility of identity, of person and place alike, and how these identities endure even when, outwardly, Prague and Tichy might appear to have changed utterly.
Tichy was born in 1937 in Czechoslovakia. The qualifiedly idyllic girlhood of the bookish child, doted on by formidable family members in a relatively well-to-do milieu, was cut short by five pitiless years of Nazi occupation. As was the case in many countries in central Europe, the relief of liberation, notwithstanding the bloody maelstrom of total warfare, was fleeting: Fascist authoritarianism was soon replaced with the Soviet-style variety, condemning it to forty years of at best mirthless and at worst murderous Communist rule, replete with the mandatory settling of scores, purges and show trials. The so-called ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968 offered a new glimmer of hope and openness, but the popular uprising was crushed by the Soviet invasion, which resulted in a puppet government and the garrisoning of 200,000 Soviet troops in the country to ensure it stayed in line.
Such was the dire state of the homeland from which Jindra and her husband Pavel, each of whom taught philosophy at Prague’s then seven-centuries-old Charles University, escaped to 1960s England with their young son Peter. A few years later they migrated to New Zealand where Jindra, along with Pavel, a well-respected logician but also an argumentative perfectionist, found teaching positions at the University of Otago and made for themselves a new if not entirely settled life.
Unsurprisingly, the brutalities of war, occupation and totalitarianism and the dislocations to which they gave rise have left their mark on Tichy, who sees little to redeem her readily enumerated failures of Communism or left-wing politics more generally. Indeed, she even condemns Alexander Dubček’s ‘Communism with a human face’ and the Prague Spring as dangerously delusional, amounting to a ‘little charade’ that was somehow also ‘a monumental lie’. I have no wish to argue with Tichy about the irredeemability of Communism, nor indeed with her hymning the loveliness of pre-War Czech society, but such unambiguous convictions expressed in clichéd mixed metaphors are surely the stuff of pronouncements from the pulpit, however much one might sympathise with them. I am reminded of Friedrich Hayek’s similarly understandable but equally instinctual holus-bolus rejection of leftist politics when Tichy states her unreserved admiration for the United Kingdom’s ‘free market economics and … sensible right-wing ideology’, an opinion with which many Britons might beg to differ, given the ruthless imposition of supposedly necessary privations they endured at the sensible hands of the Thatcherite government and its successors.
When she turns to her exile, she is more ambiguous and nuanced but often equally despairing, writing about Plato’s dialogue Crito and stating: ‘when Socrates is given the choice between emigration and execution, he chooses death. After years spent in exile I understand why his was probably the right choice.’ This is quite plainly a grim sentiment somewhat portentously expressed, about which one is left with little more to say. However, it seems she took to England, its ghastly weather notwithstanding: not least of all to its politics as noted above, but also to the distractions of Jane Austen. She is also fond of New Zealand, where, after having taught Russian and political science at Otago, she begins to write fiction, first in Czech and more recently in English. Somewhere along the way she separated from Pavel, but this particular rupture is largely elided.
All in all, this is interesting material for a book. Unfortunately, the decision to organise it thematically prevents it from assuming a coherent shape, narrative direction or consistent perspective: it is ordered by ideas about the world instead of by the world itself. Rather than an autobiography, it reads like The Life and Opinions of Jindra Tichy: whatever story it tells is only implicit in the dovetailing or overlapping siloes that constitute its chapters, and the reader is left to do work its author—or possibly its underused editor—ought to have done. Too frequently one is alerted to an event described earlier in the book that has relevance to what is now being read, sending the reader shuttling back and forth across the pages in search of connective threads. My sense is that Tichy might have better served her purposes by allowing herself more use of novelistic prerogatives, such as the way in which Tolstoy, particularly in War and Peace, uses almost cinematic changes of perspective to locate the personal in the political and social while maintaining a purposeful chronology: that is to say, creating a sense of witnessed history. This is undoubtedly a difficult task, but one that Tichy’s training and expertise might well have equipped her to do, albeit more likely in her native Czech, in which the quick of her thoughts and feelings and her sense of part and whole might be more readily expressed.
ROBERT McLEAN is a poet, critic, reviewer and PhD candidate at Massey University. His collected poems were published in 2020 by Cold Hub Press. He lives in Lyttelton and works in Wellington for the New Zealand government.