SA 'Misfit's' Pilgrimage Captures Beat of Spain

Cape Times (South Africa), October 12, 2007 | Go to article overview

SA 'Misfit's' Pilgrimage Captures Beat of Spain


Algeria's Way is an altogether surprising book. Upon reading the back cover and discovering that this is a novel about a girl, Algeria, who is "classified as honorary white under South Africa's old laws", the first surprise is that the story is set in Spain, and not in South Africa.

The second surprise is that it is a story about a pilgrimage, and one immediately imagines saints, sandals and sunburn. Again, the crafty backhand is that this novel is not about Catholicism or religious revelations. Rather, it is a sultry and simply told tale of exploration, truth and individuality.

The Ethiopian restaurant in the centre of Cape Town was the perfect place to meet Alex Smith. An eclectic blend of woven baskets, stout wooden chairs and a suitably interesting menu suited Smith, whose novel is a delightful splash in the current pool of South African literature. Smith is a petite and lively young woman, whose eyes flash as she sits forward and speaks.

Her novel is set in Spain on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela - an ancient Catholic pilgrimage which ends at the burial place of Santiago, the patron saint of Spain.

Smith has completed the Camino herself and grounds her novel in her own experiences. She insists that Algeria's Way is fiction, but a smile curls the corner of her mouth as she says this. There are obviously a few secrets from the Camino that she intends keeping to herself.

One of the pleasures of this novel is that it surprises at every turn. The book may be about a "300-kilometre walk along the ancient pilgrim paths of El Camino", but each chapter begins with a picture of "Major Arcana images from the Tarot de Marseilles and other occult decks".

Each card is a metaphor for its chapter but is, at the same time, a fresh spritz in the face of staid religion.

Although Smith felt that her experience on the Camino was spiritual, she says it did not have to do with Catholicism. The workbook that she received at the start of her journey had the tarot pictures in it, and became the symbols that she included in her novel, giving it a worldly feel.

Smith's style is effortless, magical and beautiful to read - reminiscent of Paulo Coelho's writing. It is not just the obvious link of the Camino that binds these two writers, but also a rhythm usually only found in Latin American languages. Coelho's novels are translated from Portuguese, whereas Smith has captured the beat of Spain through style and pace.

She describes Madrid, through the eyes of Algeria, as a place "which is old enough to be melancholy ... The buildings of Plaza Major, with their wreaths of fruit and flowers, recall a time when buildings were feminine and women were voluptuous. …

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