At the end of the prologue to Timothy Findley’s Pilgrim, the title character is left hanging, quite literally, by the neck from a tree in his garden. However, the opening chapter finds Pilgrim miraculously recovered from his suicide attempt and about to begin a stay at the famed Burgholzli Psychiatric Clinic in Zurich, where his psychiatrist will be none other than Carl Gustav Jung. Pilgrim’s problem is that he believes he has lived forever; in fact, his journals describe previous lives extending back some four thousand years. Jung’s problem is that he believes Pilgrim may be sane. Pilgrim’s tale will impact heavily on the doctor’s life, taxing his marriage and putting his own sanity into doubt, but eventually leading to Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, the idea that the individual contains a part of the “collective psyche” of all humanity.
Pilgrim is a richly layered text, delving into art history, philosophy, religion, mythology, and literature as it explores Pilgrim’s past lives. Findley produces a smooth blend of fiction and history, often introducing an unexpected perspective. The Trojan War becomes a spectator sport for the ordinary residents of Troy; a chilling portrait of Leonardo da Vinci emerges through the eyes of his models; Carl Jung’s wife, Emma, analyzes her husband’s increasingly erratic behavior. The novel shifts point-of-view as easily as it moves through time; occasional forays into the lives of secondary characters reinforce themes, and a pattern of recurring images further unifies the text.
Pilgrim is the work of a mature writer; it is a novel to be savored slowly and to be read more than once.