I do not usually read travel books, but when someone recommended I’m Off Then: Losing and Finding Myself on the Camino de Santiago by Hape Kerkeling, and when multiple people praised it as one of the best overall books of the year, I was intrigued. I am glad to report that the accolades were true — this book, by one of Europe’s most popular comedians, is a terrific chronicle of one man’s physical and spiritual journey of self discovery.
I’m Off Then is the journal of Hans Peter Kerkeling, better known as Hape (or the hilarious characters he has invented, like Horst Schlammer, a deputy editor of a fictitious newspaper who ran for the office of German Chancellor, or Hannilein, a precocious preschooler, or Evje van Dampen, a female relationships counselor, among others). Although pronounced differently, when I hear or read Kerkeling’s first name, I think of the American word “happy,” and that’s an appropriate description for this internationally famous comedian. Yet, like other comics before him, from Charlie Chaplin to Steve Martin, Hape Kerkeling displays the tears of a clown as his book offers not only humor throughout its pages, but serious moments as well — a fine balance that makes it clear why this publishing endeavor by the comedian has become such a success.
The book has sold more than 3 million copies in Germany and has been translated in eleven languages. It tells the true tale of Kerkeling’s decision to take a 500-mile pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the legendary grave of Saint James, in a quest to find God and himself. After serious health problems (sudden hearing loss, surgery to remove his gallbladder, and symptoms of a heart attack), Hape becomes one of the nearly 100,000 who take the journey every year, inspired by others who have also completed this spiritual quest, including Shirley MacLaine, who wrote about it in The Camino: A Journey of the Spirit, and Paulo Coelho, who wrote The Pilgrimage: A Contemporary Quest for Ancient Wisdom. Since the book has been published, the number of pilgrims along the Camino has increased by 20 percent.
Although the translation by Shelley Frisch is fine, succeeding in capturing many of Kerkeling’s puns and other word play, the occasional phrase here and there made me wish I could have heard it and understood it in the original German. Nevertheless, there were numerous occasions that had me smiling, chuckling, or laughing out loud. Kerkeling’s prose is sincere, witty, and often full of passion. His descriptions of his journey frequently put a smile on my face, such as this passage during one of his moments of frustration: “I want to smash one of the route’s ubiquitous scallop signposts. But I don’t want to splinter my walking stick,” or this grin-inducing sentence after traversing a particularly dangerous stretch of road near traffic that was too close for comfort: “We have decided to lodge an official complaint with the King of Spain regarding this disgraceful treatment of pilgrims.”
There are black-and-white pictures throughout the book, snapshots of the places Hape visited along his journey. While the shots of alleys and houses are nice, and some succeed in conveying the awe-inspiring grandeur of sights like the famous iron cross Cruz de Ferro, the most interesting were the quirky images mixed among them: his Canadian hiking boots, the sign posts, the lonesome dogs he encountered.
The book thankfully features a map that shows the path Kerkeling and the other pilgrims take, beginning at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France and ending at Santiago de Compostela on the other side of Spain, with numerous pit stops along the way to the final destination. During this arduous adventure, Kerkeling comes across many fellow pilgrims –- a broad lineup of characters too numerous to mention –- from violent hooligans to annoying eccentrics. There are so many people that Hape meets that it becomes near impossible to keep track of them all. At one point, it almost sounds like the making of a funny bar song: two Spaniards, four grim ragged men, six tipsy teenagers, etc. Yet, he does connect with some of the folks he meets, forming a bond of friendship with at least two fellow travelers: long, red-haired Sheelagh, and the British woman with the Harry Potter eyeglasses, Anne. It is his relationship with Anne that is especially endearing throughout the book, as she witnesses signs of Kerkeling’s fame along their trip, but he refrains from revealing to her his status as a European celebrity.
Another encounter that left a major impression was Hape’s interaction with an old, long-bearded, bespectacled shaman. We meet him in one of my favorite chapters called “Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere Beyond Leon.” The shaman ends up having multiple aliases, such as “Americo Montinez de la Something,” Ruco Urco, and Jorge from Ecuador. His conversations with Hape are both profound and outrageous, sounding at times like the words of a wise man and at other times like the ramblings of a madman.
The shaman encounter is just one example of many mystical moments that happen to Kerkeling along his pilgrimage. He comes across signs that read, “Do You Know Who You Are?” and “Welcome to Reality” as he struggles with bad knees from one town to the next, collecting his pilgrim stamps to prove he has gone the entire way. Characters appear and disappear and reappear again, often with uncanny timing, forcing Hape to write that he is not inventing any of these seemingly coincidental encounters.
Not only does I’m Off Then work as a diary for Kerkeling’s trip along the Camino, it also offers a number of flashbacks to Hape’s life and career, serving as a bit of autobiographical filler to flesh out who exactly the author is. Rather than being distracting or tangential, these moments fit in well with the progression of the story, since they occur during times along the journey when Hape is most vulnerable, whether from loneliness, fatigue, spiritual doubt, or some other overwhelming emotional hurdle. During the pilgrimage, Kerkeling reflects on his own life. That is one of the purposes of his quest to find himself and confirm his purpose in life and within the universe. As he writes: “Everything that has happened in my life up to this point seems to resurface here on the Camino, and the facets of my experiences come together.”
It is a life changing, or rather a life affirming, pilgrimage. He even criticizes those who take the journey to promote their own piousness instead of engaging in it to better themselves. For example, he sees a few hypocritical “ultra-Catholics” who flaunt their multiple pilgrimages. As Hape says, “This journey ought to transform me in some way,” but he sees these holier-than-thou pilgrims as the “same people as before the journey,” unchanged, still clinging to their imperfections as if they were virtues and not embracing the transforming potential of the road to Santiago.
Kerkeling writes a personal testament that is uplifting and profound. His bold candor and self-deprecating humor make it evident why he has become such a popular figure in Europe. Beneath the jokes is a serious effort to discovery his role in the greater scheme of things. By reading his words, I not only felt as if I had walked the Camino with him, (even though I have never even stepped foot in Europe), but I also witnessed the transformation of a man during a strenuous quest. He starts off the journey, thinking, “To encounter God, you first have to issue an invitation to Him; He does not come without being asked – a divine form of good manners.” By the end, he realizes that the divinity he has searched for has always been there. His final two paragraphs are beautiful and moving, revealing how much Hape Kerkeling has changed from when he started. It isn’t so much that he is a different person, but that he has finally rediscovered himself.