The novel opens with a man known only as Pilgrim hanging himself in London in 1912. Despite being pronounced dead by two physicians, he somehow lives. Pilgrim has attempted suicide many times before but is seemingly unable to die. He claims to have endured life for thousands of years but has tired of living and only longs for death. He has crossed paths with many historical figures including Leonardo da Vinci, Saint Teresa, Oscar Wilde, and Auguste Rodin.

After his most recent suicide attempt, he is admitted to a psychiatric facility in Zurich as a patient of the famous Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung. Pilgrim eventually escapes from the institution and masterminds the successful theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. Next, he sets the cathedral at Chartres on fire. The novel ends with Pilgrim driving a car into a river on the eve of World War I. His body is never found.


Both Pilgrim and Carl Jung search for truth and meaning in a world filled with madness. Their interaction and conversations provide much of the philosophical and spiritual substance of the novel. How do people survive the madness that surrounds them? Can we really distinguish between beliefs and reality? How should we define identity? Can an individual become anyone he wishes if he believes strongly enough?

Pilgrim may be an immortal or a dreamer or a victim of mental illness. Yet he and his confident psychiatrist, Jung, are lonely men. Each man learns that fame is much different than (and inferior to) greatness and that time strands all people. While the novel raises many questions about the nature of freedom, reality, self, madness, and the human condition, it ultimately advises us to live for the moment since that is all we truly possess.


First published in Canada (HarperFlamingo, 1999).



Place Published

New York



Page Count


Secondary Source