Thursday, 30 August 2001

Timothy Findley: Pilgrim (1999)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 2000
Review number: 929

What can you do with a man who persists in attempting to commit suicide, yet always comes back to life after doctors pronounce him dead? In this novel, set in pre-First World War Europe, the answer is to pack him off to the Burghölzi clinic in Zurich, a centre of the new science of psychiatry, where Jung is one of the medical staff.

The novel tells the story of Mr Pilgrim's treatment there, and the reader has to make the same decision as the characters: what should be made of his story, that he has been living for hundreds of years as a variety of people - the model for the Mona Lisa, a shepherd boy befriended by St Theresa of Avila, a craftsman at the construction of the windows of Chartres cathedral, and so on.

With its theme of long life and gender swapping, the obvious novel to compare Pilgrim to is Virginia Woolf's Orlando. Though the similarities are more than superficial, there is a profound difference. Orlando is about a particular personality (it is a portrait of Vita Sackville-West), but Pilgrim is about the mind. That, I think, is the reason for the different types of people he has been.

Another aspect of the interest in mind in the novel is the depiction of the Burghölzi. There, Pilgrim and some of the other patients seem happier than the doctors, all of whom, including Jung, are portrayed as understanding little of what they are doing.

Pilgrim is a fascinating novel, written in a style reminiscent of Jill Paton Walsh which gives it a magical air.

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