The novel opens elliptically with a woman who suffers the death of a beloved male and feels completely at a loss to continue with her old life. She longs to voyage to some distant land, take up residence there, and erase time, memory, and pain, but she cannot. Instead, she is drawn to a neighboring village that is conspicuous for its quiet and emptiness, and she makes mental visits to the place. Without explanation, she suddenly finds herself transported back to the year 1410 and a world utterly foreign to hers. She remains there for more than a year.
Her sojourn in the village brings her in contact with lives that are continually touched by the miraculous. One man finds a beached mermaid that escapes back into the sea; a woman gives birth to an infant with a fish’s head; another woman suffers devils crawling over her recumbent body; an elderly grandmother has visions of Saint Christopher; and a leper wanders into town and requests the village priest to give him the last rites because he feels it will ease the pain of his affliction.
Although none of the villagers acknowledges her presence, the narrator becomes an intimate companion of each, witnessing their exorcisms, the loss of some at sea, and the adversities that overwhelm nearly all of them. When the leper arrives, the priest, a teenage girl, and the narrator are provoked by his presence and intrigued by his tales of travel to the Holy Land. When a recurrence of what they call the Great Pestilence seems imminent, they make a pilgrimage, led by the leper, to Jerusalem. Gradually and one by one, the travelers die or are separated from one another until the priest, the leper, and the narrator arrive at their destination.
On the simplest level, the novel offers a disconcerting look at personal dislocation and trauma. However, behind the apparent improbabilities and strangeness is a careful examination of modern life as seen through the lens of the Middle Ages. The novel contrasts the desecrated world of the narrator’s reality with the spiritually vitalized experience of the villagers. Symbols and portents are everywhere, and the villagers are especially sensitive to their significance. For instance, after the birth of the “fish baby,” a man fears for the birth of his grandchild and pledges that he will make a religious pilgrimage if the child is born healthy. When the baby does arrive safely, he remains true to his word, abandoning work, his family, and all that is familiar to journey across the world.
Not only are signs pregnant with meaning, but so are individual lives, and each person is depicted as unique and intriguing. The priest is accorded unique treatment, but so also is the leper, who is regarded less as a pariah than as a sage delivered to free them of their provinciality. When he gives his travel book to Sally, who cannot read, she sees it as a hallowed text to be thoroughly assimilated. To that end, she literally devours the vellum pages with a map to the Holy Land, believing that once it is digested she will have mastered its geography. Later, during the journey, the priest even asks her about their direction when they are temporarily lost.
These are people for whom everything has a spiritual dimension; experience is not mere accident but an opportunity to come in contact with divine powers. The sense throughout is that these people live in direct contact with the mysterious and hidden. Thus their lives are rarefied, like the shoemaker who grows blind, miraculously recovers his sight, and is then rendered mute. After his death, his wife believes that he is communicating with her and steering her life to eventual fulfillment. Instances such as these contrast sharply with the narrator’s sense of vacancy and spiritual desolation.
Pilgrimage is invariably regarded as the answer to prayers, a solution to confusion, or the means for knowledge and personal and spiritual expansion. The leper, who has been cured as a result of his journey, becomes a symbol for renewal through travel. For each of the pilgrims, the old Spanish proverb “The journey is more important than the inn” becomes one of life’s undeniable truths, and for someone as lost as the narrator, truth is a rare condition. In fact, pilgrimage is the narrator’s singular “reality,” the experience through which she regards all others.
Implicit in the spirituality of these people is not only a belief in but also an acceptance of miracles. Although the narrator relates events in an almost flat, matter-of-fact tone, readers may doubt her reliability. Neither science nor modern rationality ever intrude to refute the events; therefore, one is compelled to accept, though...
(The entire section is 1897 words.)