I have lived many times, Doctor Jung. Who knows, as Leda I might have been the mother of Helen -- or, as Anne, the mother of Mary. I was Orion once, who lost his sight and regained it. I was also a crippled shepherd in thrall to Saint Teresa of Avila; an Irish stable-boy and a maker of stained glass at Chartres. I stood on the ramparts of Troy and witnessed the death of Achilles. I saw the first performance of Hamlet and the last performance of Moliere, the actor. I was a friend to Oscar Wilde and an enemy to Leonardo... I am both male and female, I am ageless and I have no access to death.
Pilgrim (he admits to no first name) is introduced to us in such a way that we expect the entire novel to be told in retrospect: we meet him as he walks out at 4am one spring morning in 1912 to hang himself in the garden of his Cheyne Walk home.
Pilgrim, though, can't die. After hours dead his heart begins to beat again: and his dear friend Lady Sybil Quatermaine accompanies him to Switzerland, to the Burgholzli Psychiatric Clinic in Zurich, where he is given into the care of one Herr Doktor Carl Gustav Jung.
Henceforth Pilgrim is as much Jung's tale as Pilgrim's own -- more, perhaps, since for quite a while Pilgrim refuses to speak at all. Luckily, Sybil has entrusted his journals to Jung, and Jung's wife Emma reads them: at first with disbelief and later with a growing fascination. For Pilgrim writes of other lives he's lived, of other times: of the time when he was Elisabetta Gherardini, gazing upon the painter Leonardo with a deadly hatred; when he was Manolo, a crippled Spanish shepherd-boy, and begged a young Catholic woman named Teresa for a miracle she could not bestow; when he was Simon le Jeune and signed his name in the great glass window at Chartres Cathedral; of walking the walls of Troy, shaded by a parasol, watching heroes fight ...
Of course, these may all be fantasies. The nature of Pilgrim's condition is never made clear, and -- aside from his undoubted resistance to death -- there's no objective evidence to support his claims. There is a birthmark (or is it a tattoo?) in the shape of a butterfly -- Psyche's symbol -- that appears to accompany him through all these lives. There's his assertion that although he dies and is reborn, he never knows what it is to be a child.
He is, if nothing else, a man who inspires great loyalty: from Kessler, a man with madness in his own past, who tends him in the Clinic; from his manservant Forster, who affects disguise and engages in espionage to 'rescue' his master; from Lady Sybil, who may be a spiritual messenger or simply a Victorian aristocrat with a penchant for the supernatural; from Emma, who weeps over his journals and rejoices when it seems he's free. Doves and pigeons are drawn to him. Photographed in the snow, a butterfly appears in the picture.
Towards the end of the novel, Pilgrim becomes decidedly more active: he has an agenda, and he wants the world to listen, for some of his dreams are of a future filled with blood and war.
I read Pilgrim feeling that there were layers of the story that entirely eluded me. Perhaps this is a tale of madness, of Pilgrim as just another patient at the clinic -- where the Countess Blavinskeya believes herself to be an inhabitant of the Moon, where a woman plays piano with Robert Schumann's hands, where a man writes on every surface with an invisible pen, and another believes himself to be a dog. (Picturesque madnesses. Upper-class madnesses.) Or perhaps it's a tale about art and the power of art, from Leonardo's light-and-shadow to the glorious colours at Chartres ...
Or perhaps it's a tale of the case that Jung could not solve, that shaped his interests in mysticism, synchronicity, the collective unconscious. Perhaps Pilgrim is that collective unconscious embodied.