With the hallucinatory clarity and conviction of a particularly vivid dream, Timothy Findley's Pilgrim sets some of human history's greatest names in new perspectives. Following the title character's road to a recovery of sorts after yet another failed suicide attempt, this novel well bears such weighty matters as life and death, loss of faith and loss of love, reconciliation to destiny and confrontation of inner demons. The meanings of beauty, humanity, belief and pain are all seen anew when reexamined in the context of a man who cannot die, a man who has witnessed crowning achievement and basest horror in equal measure.
Carl Gustav Jung, already a rising star in the circles of his profession in the spring of 1912 but not yet at the peak of his fame, is fascinated by the tall, mute English art historian admitted to the Bürgholzli Psychiatric Clinic in Zürich. Here is a man who, by several accounts, has tried to kill himself more than once. What is so startlingly uncommon about that is that each time, hours after being pronounced dead, he has revived. This "Pilgrim," the only name by which he is known, is convinced that he cannot die. Jung moves swiftly to make Pilgrim's case his own, whisking him out from under his original doctor. It is a move that serves to make Jung still less popular with some of his colleagues, but the young doctor's attention is riveted on this new human puzzle he hopes to solve.
Through Pilgrim's acquaintances and journals, Jung becomes intimate with his patient's singular madness. Accounts of encounters with such notables as Leonardo daVince, Teresa of Avila and Oscar Wilde prove one of two things: that Pilgrim has an exceedingly vivid imagination, or that he is telling the truth when he says that he is immortal. While Jung tries to draw Pilgrim out and keep him from further suicide attempts, his devoted wife Emma researches the veracity of Pilgrim's journal tales. Emotionally affected by Pilgrim's memories, Emma finds herself less and less willing to tolerate her talented husband's indiscretions. As the Jungs drift rapidly apart, Pilgrim thinks of a way that he might symbolically erase his past. With a daring escape, he hopes to finally meet his destiny's end.
Pilgrim's narrative whisks backwards, returns to the story's present, and repeats the process, sometimes even arrowing into the future before coming back. Pilgrim's "lives" provide new insights into the stories behind some very familiar names. Emma's distress and eventual rebellion against Doktor Jung's sexual dalliances provide a splendid counterpoint. Hers is a tale too often told, that of a woman who stays with a man who just can't seem to keep his pants on, and it has a grounding effect when told along with Pilgrim's more unconventional saga. Given the matters of great consequence that Canadian author Findley's novel applies itself too, this book is (surprisingly) addictively readable.