It’s been a very long time since I’ve read any Colm Tóibín, even though I’ve really enjoyed everything of his I’ve previously read (which isn’t much), and I’ve had this book for several years, taking it to multiple Catholic European countries before reading it. This book, The Sign of the Cross, is not fiction – the genre in which Tóibín has become most known and acclaimed within in the 25 years since this was published – it is instead travel writing, journalism, personal essay, all genres I hadn’t previously associated with him.
Tóibín was a journalist and, tbh, maybe he still is. Maybe he’s enough of a mainstream novelist now to not need to be. His books have been adapted into big screen movies (none of which I’ve seen) and major international theatrical productions, which I have. Tóibín is a big deal, and one of the most striking moments in this book is when he runs into some English arts journalists in Northern Spain and though he recognises the presenter, the presenter and the crew have no idea who he is. Of course, maybe Tóibín was being impressively coy, but it doesn’t feel like he is. Tóibín now is definitely a household name, well, a household name in households that read contemporary novels, so it’s kinda nice to see a time when he wasn’t.
I picked this book up a long time ago. As someone who’s written two unpublished Catholic-themed novels and made extensive and as-yet-unedited notes towards a book about [a failed attempt at] reading the bible while walking the Camino de Santiago, a collection of non-fiction writing about Catholic Europe written by one of Europe’s top novelists appealed to me. I abstained from reading this as I slithered into deep depression and my own bible/walking text gathered weighty dust on my laptop, avoiding a book that did something I had wanted to do.
The Sign of the Cross, thankfully, isn’t the kind of text I want[ed] to write, but it is definitely the kind of text I love to read. It is travel writing about places I love going (most of which I have visited) and it comes from the perspective of someone who engages with – and is intrigued by – Catholicism but isn’t a practicing Catholic or even a believer. Tóibín, as someone from rural Ireland, Enniscorthy, was raised in a far-more Catholic environment than I was, though Catholicism is “in my blood”.
My family was broadly Catholic and – though I didn’t – my sister went to Catholic schools, but neither she nor I had been to a Catholic funeral until our grandfather died in 2017. Unless she’s done so in secret, neither of us have been to a Catholic wedding either, so I didn’t grow up mired in Catholicism lol. Tóibín did, which means he’s a lot better positioned to explore the minutiae and the variances and similarities of Christianity across Europe than I am, though the familial sense of Catholic guilt is something I am definitely qualified to explore. Teehee.
Tóibín walks some of, though mainly “cheats” i.e. takes buses and taxis, the Camino, he visits the Balkans in the midst of the Yugoslavian Civil War, he goes to see Pope John Paul II speak in his Polish hometown, he goes to see Easter celebrations in the South of Italy, he goes to processions in Seville, he speaks to Ann Widdecome about converting to Catholicism in protest at the Church of England allowing female vicars. He goes to Slovenia and Slovakia, to Prague and to Glasgow and to parts of Ireland. He goes to Tallinn and Stockholm, to Lithuania and Lourdes.
Tóibín drinks a lot here, he chats a lot, he sees a lot. There’s not much personal discussion or evocation; like in classic New Yorker articles, there’s a very present “I” but it’s an [Irish intellectual] everyman.
I know nothing about Tóibín’s love life or sex life, and though he is sometimes accompanied by friends I learnt little about them. The mystics and priests and bishops and believers he meets, as well as the occasional sceptics (such as a journalist at the pilgrimage site he visits in Herzogovina about 20 miles from a war), are evoked with much more detail. The book is delivered as if to a reader who is an atheist with a cultural background in Catholicism and a normalised attitude to heavy drinking and reading the canon: HELLO. *waves*
For me, this is a great book. I learned a lot – including a great theory about the Balkans’ propensity for civil war being a result of the numerous colonial interests that controlled the region having ignored the people living on the shit land, allowing for bitter populations of the disenfranchised to grow, over centuries.
Tóibín is often funny, thoroughly engaging and also informative. I am slap bang in the absolute centre of the target demographic for The Sign of the Cross, so it’s no surprise that I thought this was great.
I typed the first draft of this in a carpool going to do another of these weird rural catering gigs and Overheard a 50 yo man talking about his dying father getting weaker and iller, speaking about how he sees for the first time in his life, the religious justification for ageing: that it humbles the strong before they meet with god in the afterlife. I don’t think there is any reason for anything that happens other than accident, but I thought it was an elegant sentiment and he expressed it more eloquently than I have here. Maybe I’ll write a poem about this interaction lol.