I'm Off Then has sold more than three million copies in Germany and has been translated into eleven languages. The number of pilgrims along the Camino has increased by 20 percent since the book was published. Hape Kerkeling's spiritual journey has struck a chord.
Overweight, overworked, and disenchanted, Kerkeling was an unlikely candidate to make the arduous pilgrimage across the Pyrenees to the Spanish shrine of St. James, a 1,200-year-old journey undertaken by nearly 100,000 people every year. But he decided to get off the couch and do it anyway. Lonely and searching for meaning along the way, he began the journal that turned into this utterly frank, engaging book. Filled with unforgettable characters, historic landscapes, and Kerkeling's self-deprecating humor, I'm Off Then is an inspiring travelogue, a publishing phenomenon, and a spiritual journey unlike any other.
The 500-mile route along the Camino Frances, from the base of the Pyrenees to the shrine of St. James at Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, has afforded a sacred pilgrimage to Christians for centuries, and German comedian Kerkeling, somewhat whimsically, resolved to hike it. At 36, a self-described "pudgy couch potato" who suffered some health problems, Kerkeling, wanting to know who God is, set out along the route in the summer of 2001 with an overheavy knapsack only to nearly give up at the first pass. There are nearly 40 stops along the way (helpfully laid out on a map insert), and chapter by chapter, Kerkeling chronicles nearly every one. Pilgrims must get their credencial del peregrino (passport) stamped at official hostels, usually dreary bunk-packed dorms, as they go, but Kerkeling, a fastidious German craving privacy and hot baths, mostly chooses to stay in hotels. As well, he jumped into cars and trains whenever his feet were smarting. Encounters with other pilgrims enliven this travel account, especially the two English-speaking ladies who accompanied him toward the end; as they approached Santiago, they all felt emotionally uplifted. While the author is better known in Germany and his antics somewhat lost in translation, his emotionally probing narrative develops depth and a touching sincerity.