Monday, April 8, 2013
Review: Paris to the Pyrenees by David Downie
Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Walks The Way of Saint James by David Downie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
My usual disclaimer: I'm not typically one to do written reviews. However, every once in a while I find I can't stop thinking about a book and need to comment on it. This is one of those times.
Knowing of my love (read: obsession) for narratives about pilgrimages along The Way, a friend recommended this book to me. I immediately discerned from the title that this wasn't the typical "Way" narrative, which usually starts somewhere on the edge of France, proceeds across the Pyrenees through Galicia, and ends at Santiago de Compestela. Downie and his photographer-wife Alison Harris instead fashioned a pilgrimage along Chemins de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, traveling from Paris to the Pyrenees. In so doing, they followed in the footsteps of countless medieval pilgrims who started on their "Way" from Paris, and simultaneously retraced the 'way' of the ancient Romans and peoples of Gaul before them.
Downie and Harris deliberately chose the roads that are today less traveled from Paris through rural France. They stopped their pilgrimage at the edge of the Pyrenees in Roncesvalles, which marks the traditional beginning for the modern-day Compestela pilgrim. Although the paths chosen by Downie and Harris may be less traditional for Compestela narratives, they are no less compelling.
I've often said that my personal goal in life is to ask intelligent questions. A leitmotif of Downie's lyrical prose is his quest to understand the nature of pilgrimage, which he sees as being less about finding the 'right' answers and more about discerning and framing the "infinity of questions." With this philosophy, the paths chosen and even the ultimate destinations aren't what really matter; it's the journey that counts. And what a journey this is! Downie's musings range far and wide yet remain physically connected to his travel narrative. As he walks, he mentally meanders through such diverse topics as how to "visually embed" scenery to memory, the complexities and progression of French history over the millennia, connections between the Roman Empire and contemporary American culture, the relevance and preservation of architectural witnesses to history, and the appropriateness and irony of a secular intellectual following a religious pilgrimage route (an irony pithily summarized in the subtitle "A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks The Way of Saint James"). Harris' gorgeous photographs enhance the reader's journey with a different kind of visual embedding.
This is the kind of pilgrimage I want to make and the sort of book I'd want to write afterwards. Circumstances dictate that for now I must settle for the occasional armchair pilgrimage. Fortunately, rereading Paris to the Pyrenees will be a joyful literary journey, and I'm pleased to recommend this book to other readers. Thank you, David Downie, for taking us along on your way.
Also posted to Goodreads.