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English department


A Sense of Direction
by Gordon Lewis-Kraus

Gideon Lewis-Kraus himself sums up his book best when he calls this journey “the bullshit caravan into nothingness” (83). The story follows Lewis-Kraus around the Camino, then to all the temples on the Shikoku circuit and then finally to Uman. He writes about three different pilgrimages each focus on the past, present or future with intermissions in Berlin and Shanghai between each journey.

Each and every fleeting thought and moment is preserved in this book. It makes a great personal journal for his travels, but perhaps it should have stayed as such. The thoughts he ponders are often redundant, and obscure. For all the traveling that happens, his description of setting doesn’t introduce us to any of it. He travels all over, to places many readers will never go to, but he does not help us to picture. The reader is left adrift to exist only in his pondering. For some time, the reader is cut adrift from place like Lewis-Kraus. There are gems and other gold nuggets of insight in the rough. Particularly his thoughts during the Uman about forgiveness are worth recognition.

His title misleads readers because it is not a hopeful book about pilgrimage; it’s an incredibly specific story about he and his father coming to terms. This could have created a fine story in itself, but I couldn’t understand why he insisted this was a book about pilgrimage. He flip-flops between the pilgrimages, to his inner struggle with his father.

Most pilgrims say the culturally classic Camino pilgrim farewell “Buen Camino” and disappear because it’s too hard to travel with him and Tom. He doesn’t hesitate to throw every single pilgrim he meets under the bus. He and Tom are well matched because they write about writing about each other and are each as childlike and selfish as the other. The best parts of this book were his time with his grandfather Max and his brother Micah. These are two characters who do not put up with grumpy Gideon, and their insights on life are much more applicable and relatable. These people are actually quite loveable.

Lewis-Kraus has the luxury of doing very little, and the nerve to complain about it. It’s hard to relate to his life in Berlin. He is part of a very modern art crowd that is hard to understand (it may have taken a whole other book to get what’s going on in their different projects). He doesn’t work that we know of, or have a schedule of things to accomplish. As far as the reader can tell he just waits around and does whatever he feels like doing. It seems that money is no issue for him; he can pick up and move about like it’s not a big deal. Travel holds no novelty for him. Restless is an understatement; he isn’t attached to anything. He uses “the girl in Shanghi” for a romantic interest plot twist without regard to her feelings (this is a memoir, remember, so she’s a real person with real legitimate feelings). He desperately needs routine with purpose, and admits as much.

Numerous times throughout the book he compares a healthy life, and pilgrimage with a married one. When his grandfather Max and he walk together, they talk about how the commitment and lack of fun of a pilgrimage “sounds a bit like marriage” (167). Lewis-Kraus imposes his problems onto a perfect lady he hasn’t met yet. It’s an incredibly difficult read if you believe men are responsible for themselves, their choices and their health. His faith in a woman coming and rescuing him creates a resolve neither true nor engaging. He chooses to go on a pilgrimage, but then neglects all the ceremonies, traditions, and any other routine the pilgrimage offers. The reader constantly wonders why and what is he doing here if he’s not really trying anything different?

It seems strange for him to write about pilgrimage if he isn’t actually doing it. The whole book, perhaps, felt like a very long passive-aggressive status update. He wanted to use this book as an opportunity to tell his side of the story. But this is life; the opportunity to pause to explain and justify your actions is not an option. He comes to this realization himself in the book, but then still moves forward into publishing?

By: TANICE MAST