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Irreverent, moving, hilarious, and thought-provoking, A Sense of Direction is Lewis-Kraus’s dazzling riff on the perpetual war between discipline and desire, and its attendant casualties. Across three pilgrimages and many hundreds of miles, he completes an idiosyncratic odyssey to the heart of a family mystery and a human dilemma: How do we come to terms with what has been and what is—and find a way forward, with purpose?
Fresh out of college, there was San Francisco, where Gideon Lewis-Kraus followed love and spent "three years idly wondering why I was there and not somewhere else — pretty much anywhere else, but especially somewhere that paid slightly less attention to heirloom produce." The love lost its bloom. And so to Berlin — without girlfriend or tomatoes but lugging fistfuls of emotional baggage — "because nowhere was more appealing than Berlin had once been, should have been still," a step west of the cutting edge.
Berlin offers a nonstop moral holiday, "soft and heavy with desire," and Lewis- Kraus is "an agent in the world of total possibility." He is free to pursue his writing — the sojourn underwritten by a Fulbright, mention of which is dropped with conspicuous casualness into the proceedings — but the sheer number of his options produces crazy crosscurrents, and his only rudder is indulgence. Out of this "crisis of doing what you want" comes a creeping malaise. A sense of direction is what he needs, and he charts it in this pilgrim's progress, a pleasingly untidy memoir of hard travel in distant places.
Three pilgrimages are chronicled: one in Spain, another in Japan, a third in the Ukraine; one linear, one circular, one a point in space. Though Lewis-Kraus professes a dislike of descriptive travel writing, he has a lovely hand at it: "In the little bays the water pools in absinthe clouds," while down the coast are "darkening granite cliffs over an empty copper sea." The other writing here is pretty pleasurable, too: "She talked in big impressionistic clouds and then gesticulated in their vicinity to disperse them" is almost as memorable an image as "[a] butterfly loops into Tom's face and Tom jumps as though dodging a flaming brick."
No matter how fine a sentence Lewis-Kraus can turn, he has a bigger fish to fry: his father. As a boy, he endured his father's flickering moods and his aura of secrecy. When he was nineteen, his father came out of the closet and embarked on a "sustained fantasy that a decade of complete and utter irresponsibility was the least the world owed him," his earlier sexual sacrifice evidently freeing him of future sacrifices as a father. Again and again, the son feels the sting of his father's disinterest. There is mention of fisticuffs. But the old man is a fascinating blend of narcissist and rabbi; no matter how grim a picture Lewis-Kraus paints, his father remains a beguiling, just-over-the-horizon character.
But before we really get to meet his father, Lewis-Kraus has some pilgrimaging to do. His reasons for embarking on these journeys are murky at first. He is having trouble jump-starting his writing career and senses that his productivity is linked to having a little structure in his life, a little direction, and a pilgrimage has that in spades. The Camino de Santiago offers restraint and daily purpose, though in his case it will be free of the question of belief. He will be patient in trying to articulate his motives and stay focused on the day in front of him — which is good news, for he is thinking all the time, his mind whirring like a hamster's wheel. You can almost smell the burn and you want him to just relax, but you also know that he is entertaining precisely because his hair is on fire. He and his walking partner, Tom, have a lively, minorly competitive relationship, and they have dubbed their walk the "bullshit caravan into nothingness." Lewis-Kraus may use a broad brush when it comes to exactly what he is doing, but he paints with a fine line when it comes to the landscapes they are moving through, the people they meet, the food, the weather, the blisters.
The Camino is cleansing, and he returns present and content to Berlin, where it all vanishes like smoke. Before long he is headed to Japan and the Shikoku circuit of eighty-eight temples. It is a bogglingly nasty pilgrimage, much through cold, pouring rain and alongside a motorway. Lewis-Kraus is a surprising soldier about it, folding away his fears and desponds before this "old and corporeal kind of shock therapy, a structure that is maintained and promoted to help inspire an embodied sense of gratitude and wonder at the variety and generosity of the world."
The final pilgrimage to Uman, where Hasidic men gather to celebrate Rosh Hashanah at the site of a pogrom in the Ukraine — "equal parts squalid Ukrainian village and blighted Soviet city" — is more brutish still, and exclusionary. Yet now, Lewis-Kraus is in the company of his father and his brother. You know they are going to zero in on the old guy, get some answers to long-standing questions, air grievances, squeeze him for regret. Despite his self-centeredness, the father is a disarming gentleman who radiates affection more than bitterness. Lewis-Kraus, his mind whirring and whirring, chews upon "the intolerable conflict to want your father to have been resolute and unapologetic and also need him to have not hurt you."
Lewis-Kraus is too much a skeptic to tie this story up with a bow, although he does manage to burrow down to some nubs. One is the importance of memory in turning a rite into a ritual, "an act of tradition that grounds you in the continuity of your life." Then there is the nexus between his experience as a pilgrim and his father's experience coming out, the meaningful difference between something commanded and something chosen, "the authority you invoke and the costs you're prepared to acknowledge." To acknowledge his own wants and desires find him on the "steadiness of a line, the line of what I did, the line that brings me here" — without regrets, on a pilgrimage.
Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City. A selection of his work can be found at writesformoney.com.
Reviewer: Peter Lewis
My friend Tom was trapped at home in a tiny, distant city. He had no Estonian visa, and he knew if he left Tallinn he'd be unable to return. More immediately problematic was the Russian stripper he'd been flirting with, or, more specifically, her boyfriend, who had taken to hanging around Tom's front door. Tom pleaded with me to visit, confident the guy wouldn't take on the two of us.
Tom and I didn't know each other all that well then, nothing like later, but it sounded like a fun excuse for a trip. Unlike Tom, I could leave my apartment in Berlin whenever I wanted — I had a German freelancer's visa and no cuckolded Baltic criminals camped out on my stoop — and was, in fact, spending more time away than at home. By that point Berlin often left me feeling at loose ends, and one of the things I had come to like most about living there was how easy it was never to be in town. A lot of my friends had already moved on, had gone back to resume their real lives in New York, and I myself was beginning to wonder if it wasn't time to pack it in. It was unclear where I'd go, though, mostly because nowhere was more appealing than Berlin had once been, should have been still. I'd been living in lovely, provincial San Francisco and had moved to Berlin because I'd felt I was missing out on something exciting, and now I was on the brink of leaving lively, provisional Berlin because I was afraid I was missing out on something serious. A quarter lifetime of anecdotal evidence suggested, however, that once I actually motivated myself to move somewhere I considered serious, somewhere like New York — where I had never actually lived for very long but where, I imagined, I would find myself ready to get on with the routines and attachments that make for a real life (cat, yoga, a relationship) — I would once again regret missing all the novelty diverting people elsewhere. Maybe not New York, then. Maybe Kiev. I'd heard Kiev was cheap and cool. I often reminded myself to look into it.
Tom and I held in common the hope that there might be a geographic ticket out of the problems of indecision, boredom, and the suspicion that more interesting things were happening in more fashionable places to more attractive people. Actually, that last part was my worry; in Tom's version, less interesting things were happening in contemplative places to more industrious people. Tom had moved to Tallinn with the idea he'd be pressed into productivity there, that the constraint of its distance and exoticism would force him to focus on the work he'd been neglecting in favor of video games and the more dissipated varieties of recreation. I'd moved to Berlin precisely for its lack of constraint, hoping that its sense of vast possibility would help me figure out what I wanted. Needless to say, for reasons that went beyond Russian strippers, it wasn't really working out for either of us. Tom's claustrophobia left him desperate for distraction, and my distraction left me desperate for discipline. We were like two ships waiting for a breeze that might float us past each other in the night.
Tom picked me up at the tiny airport in a taxi and brought me up to date. "I was living in Saigon," he said, "and after a year I had to leave because my life was spinning out of control. Then I was living in Rome, and I had to leave after six months because my life was spinning out of control. Then I moved to Las Vegas, and I had to leave there, too, very quickly, because my life was definitely once again spinning out of control."
"You were having trouble keeping yourself together in Rome, so you moved to Vegas?"
"So I left Vegas and I thought to myself, okay, I need to finish this long-overdue book, so I'll go to a small, distant country with an impossible language and I'll just sit and write all day until the book is done. I came here."
He looked out the window at the looming medieval spires of the old town, where he was paying Manhattan rent to live in the lavishly restored fourteenth century. "And now I can say, with utter confidence, that my life is spinning out of control."
I hadn't known Tom long enough to presume to tell him how to live. Besides, he was a successful writer I admired and had long wished I might one day resemble. He was only six years older than me, not quite enough to make him a paternal figure but enough to make him a guide, and I preferred to think of him as somewhat more together than he liked to suggest. I assumed that despite his life's apparent mismanagement there must be some greater logic to it. Plus he was living out a somewhat distorted but still recognizable version of my own fantasy: skipping club lines with future Baltic dictators, then until-dawn depravity with minor Baltic celebrities. The best thing I could do for him, I decided, was to provide him with company and reverence.
What I chiefly remember about the four-day jag that followed is waking up in my bed, peering at my uncharacteristically unread email, and realizing that I was back in Berlin. I had vague recollections of sitting in an idling cab outside a Soviet-era tower block on the outskirts of Tallinn, and of spending an evening in the company of some Siberian dancers and the man being groomed to lead Estonia's next nationalist front, and of gazing through a bobbing porthole at some gray sea while Tom let his forehead cool against a Formica table. I looked at my camera to discover a few blurry images of what I have come to believe was probably Helsinki. The only other clue was a page in my little notebook, where I'd managed one note in four days: "Camino de Santiago — sense of purpose — June 10." I'd underlined "purpose."
This Camino business sounded vaguely familiar. The internet dutifully reported that in the year A.D. 813, the alleged bones of the apostle St. James the Greater were unearthed in Santiago de Compostela, in far northwestern Spain. St. James had supposedly evangelized as far afield as Galicia — unlikely, Tom says — before he was martyred in first-century Palestine. His relics were said to have arrived at the Atlantic coast, then the presumed end of the world, in a stone boat, where they remained buried under a hermitage until their discovery eight centuries later. A pilgrimage to the site started up within the next hundred years, probably along the old trail of a pagan death cult. (The Iberian Celts walked to the end of the earth to watch the sun perish nightly into the sea.) Around 1140 the Codex Calixtinus appeared, a book that's part how-to and part spiritual advice, and that has come to be regarded as the world's first travel guide — the route is also credited with the invention of the souvenir tchotchke — and since that time the Camino de Compostela has seen a more or less continuous parade of redemptive aspiration. Over the past twenty years, in no small part thanks to the efforts of a dopey German television comedian, the pilgrimage has become popular with a secular crowd. It's about nine hundred kilometers, or a little less than six hundred miles, depending on where you start and whether you continue to the sea, and takes most people about a month to walk.
The book Tom had moved to Estonia to work on was a record of his visits to the far-flung tombs of the apostles, and by the time I was done reading up on the Camino, which had an immediate appeal for reasons I only dimly understood, I'd retrieved a faint memory of Tom's having said he planned to spend the following summer strolling across Spain, starting on the French side of the Pyrenean border. I didn't know what to make of my "June 10" note, though, so I called him up on Skype. He hadn't slept since I'd left, but he sounded chipper, happy to hear from me.
"I miss you, man," he said. "I'm lonely again and wish you were still around."
"Me, too, buddy." I paused. "So, Tom, what's going on June 10?"
"That's the day we start," he said. "It worked with both of our schedules."
I had no schedule to speak of, so I couldn't argue with that. Then again, neither did he. The notion of something working with our schedules made me suspicious.
"The day we start what, Tom?"
"Our walk across Spain. You don't remember? Strolling through hills by night, just you and me and the long path ahead. I told you any hotels we stay in are on me. You had that whole rousing speech about how we'd wake up each morning full of the simple, broad purpose of moving forward. You pounded your fist on the table and shouted to the whole bar that you were one hundred percent in. A few Estonians even clapped, though maybe they were just trying to get you to be quiet. Then we promised some girls we'd send them postcards from Santiago."
Prologue Tallinn 1
Part I Berlin 9
Part II Camino 51
Interlude. Berlin/Shanghai 141
Part III Shikoku 155
Interlude. Shanghai/San Francisco 253
Part IV Uman 259
Epilogue. Kiev/Berlin 335
Posted June 21, 2012
This was the most incredibly boring book I have ever read.
Too much wording without really ever making a point to all the ramblings.
I was going to at least give a star for "clean" writing but after several pages
that was even null and void.
The only thing I can think to praise is literary accuracy and vague interest
in places visited.
Posted June 4, 2012
I found this very personal intellectual romp to be occassionally humerous, and I assume meaningful to the author. However, for me it was tedious and self indulgent. I kept waiting for an aha moment which never came. Still, insights from pilgrimage continue to unfold in our lives and I wish him the best.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.