By BRUCE DENNILL
Dieter Daehnke: Journey Of A Stickman
All books are about journeys, one way or another. Dieter Daehnke’s recollections of his experiences on the Camino – the pilgrim’s trek from various points in Europe to the giant cathedral in Santiago de Compostela that supposedly houses the remains of St James, one of Jesus’ disciples and first leader of the Jerusalem church – simply take out the extra padding that fiction requires to take the reader along for the walk.
Daehnke’s writing style is considered and intellectual, befitting – if only superficially – his maturity (the author’s in his seventies now) and Teutonic heritage. That said, he’s careful, in noting his activities on each day of his two separate hikes across Spain, to not include so much detail that his reader get bogged down or indeed simply bored by descriptions of a man walking from point A to point B.
The writer must be commended for taking an interest in not only the culture of Spain but more specifically in the culture of the Camino. In his capacity as a tourist, he prioritises those sites that speak to the history of the regions he’s traversing and to the institutions that have sprung up in those areas over the centuries during which pilgrims have been heading to Compostela, in the north-western corner of the country. And as a pilgrim, he only stays in the hostels dedicated to such visitors, rather in more comfortable hotels – well within his budget, but unlikely to allow him to mix with like-minded souls and to become a part of an ancient tradition.
Importantly from a reader’s point of view, Daehnke shares more than just the details of each fresh destination that are likely available in a pamphlet from the local tourist office. Rather, inspired by his context, he delves into the history of the greater region from which the Camino draws its pilgrims and the ideologies that have had an impact on those areas.
When he gets it right, these are some of the books strongest passages. Examples include passages in which Daehnke examines the long list of positives – in the fields of, among others. maths, science, healthcare and lifestyle – for which the Muslims who ruled much of the Iberian peninsula were responsible during the period of their dominance; the story of the Cathars, a breakaway Catholic sect brutally persecuted for their beliefs; and insight into the Knights Templar and their activities.
Much less memorable are the chapters in which Daehnke waxes philosophical on his own brand of spirituality, which is something of a hodge-podge mix of influences. That’s exactly the sort of thing a traveller walking 20km a day is likely to spend an appreciable time thinking of, but relative to the more concrete aspects of the narrative, this writing is less compelling to read.
Ultimately, Journey Of A Stickman (the origin of the title involves another fascinating historical anecdote) is more likely to make readers want to undertake their own Camino journey than to settle for merely having read someone else’s account. It’s likely that’s exactly what Daehnke was aiming for: he feels his experience enriched him, and he wants others to give themselves a chance to do something similarly edifying with their own lives.