His account of his brief inglorious career as a pilgrim is richly comic. He starts walking from Leon (a good way along the route) and begins to cheat almost immediately, successfully hailing a train at a deserted country halt ('I was so happy I did not even realise this was cheating') and the next day taking a bus on which passengers were entertained with a video of The Silence of the Lambs ('the whole bus was looking at it in a state of terror and wonder'). When he tries to walk he loses his way repeatedly, sometimes travelling in the opposite direction to Santiago. He makes a heroic climb through wind and rain and darkness to reach the refugio in Cebrero, only to be brusquely informed that it is full, and is ignominiously obliged to call a taxi to take him to a hotel at the bottom of the hill.
The next day, Toibin returned to Cebrero and in the pilgrims' cafe found himself sitting next to a jolly, youngish British film crew with an older man (older than he thinks, actually) whose face he seemed to recognise. It is both interesting and disconcerting to encounter oneself unexpectedly in someone else's book - like catching sight of yourself on a TV monitor. Toibin has captured very well the bonding of the production team, and the friendly but tentative nature of our own conversation, between writers meeting each other in untypical and slightly fraudulent roles. Although he identified me by asking an esoteric question about one of my novels, Toibin gives no indication of what he thinks of their treatment of Catholicism, and there is no mention of his own acclaimed novels. This reticence is typical of the book, a mixture of autobiography, travelogue and journalism which tantalises the reader with what it witholds as much as it entertains and instructs with what it describes.
He was brought up in the small market town of Enniscorthy, tucked away in the South-east corner of Ireland. It has a neo-gothic cathedral designed by Pugin in 1840 which became the focus of Catholic aspiration and communal life. As a child, Toibin spent many hours of day-dreaming boredom in its pews. In adolescence he realised that he didn't believe in the Catholic faith, and never had done: 'Religion was consolation, like listening to music after a long day's work; it was pure theatre, it was a way of holding people together.' At university he ceased to think about it. Born in 1955, he belonged to the generation who came of age in the brief Irish economic boom, and the associated relaxation of state censorship. They were optimistic, left wing, and secular in outlook. Their utopian dream faded with Ireland's economic recession. The emigration of the young resumed, and Toibin himself went to live in Barcelona for some years. He came back to Ireland to report the Pope's visit in 1979, and watched, fascinated and dismayed, as a whole nation rolled over on to its back and waved its paws in the air under the spell of this charismatic authoritarian.
The following year he found himself in transit at Lourdes, and was caught up in its devotions almost in spite of himself. 'I was confused by this mixture of hatred and fear of the Church's authority with my susceptibility to its rituals and its sheer force.' His travels in Catholic Europe are in part an inward journey of inquiry into that paradox, which is never resolved. The heart of the book is a chapter describing his participation in a group therapy exercise designed to release 'blocked' emotion. It sounds like a dangerous and dubious business, but it had an extraordinary effect on Toibin, who experienced a vivid recall of his father's death when he himself was 10. He went into an alarming and distressing state of semi-delirium and was only able to calm himself by continually making the sign of the cross in the air over the imagined body of his father. The episode gives the book its title and becomes a symbol for the irrational but powerful effect of religion on individual and collective histories.
Toibin's method is to buy a cheap ticket to some European country, talk to some useful contacts about its Catholic life, and look for a bar at the end of the day. Engagingly, he does not, unlike most travel writers, pretend to enjoy travelling. Much of the time he is bored, lonely, uncomfortable, and longing to be back home, or at least somewhere else. He reports his experiences in an artfully simple style reminiscent of the young Hemingway, but with more sense of humour. Wherever he goes he finds paradox and contradiction. In Seville the working men are all atheistic socialists but are deeply attached to the Holy Week processions. In Scotland there is a Catholic subculture but, mysteriously, hardly any Catholic writers to describe it. Catholics in Croatia, Lithuania and Slovakia have heroic stories to tell of their resistance to Soviet communism, but obstinately refuse to face the implications of their complicity with Hitler's regime and the Holocaust. These glimpses of Eastern Europe in the post-communist era are fascinating and informative. The method works least well in England, where Toibin interviews an amusing but wildly unrepresentative trio of Catholics: Terry Eagleton, Piers Paul Read and Anne Widdicombe.
The book ends with an elegiac piece about his home town, where the focus of attention is no longer the Cathedral but the new roads and bridges built with EC funds: 'History slowly comes to an end in Enniscorthy . . . the town has become a place on the way to somewhere else.' Stranded between a religious past of faction, fanaticism and repression, and a secular future of bland materialism, Colm Toibin could have produced a rather dour, depressing book. In fact The Sign of the Cross, like all genuinely good
writing, is a treat.Reuse content