Illusions (1977)

Illusions is a novel written by Richard Bach, a guy who is a writer and an airplane pilot, how can a person be so interesting? Well, the thing is that this story is about a guy named Richard, which is the author’s name, who is an old airplane pilot and who makes money by taking people for rides in his airplane. The thing is that this Richard meets another guy named Donald Shimoda, who claims to be waiting for him and who happens to be the reincarnation of Jesus, Siddhartha and so many other prophets of antiquity. Donald is waiting for Richard to teach him the art of being a messiah, since Richard has the stuff to be one of them, or as it is later revealed, he belongs to the same family. According to what I have read, it is possible that this novel is the continuation of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, but the big difference between the two books is that in Illusions, the narrative has little visuality and a lot of dialogue (in the form of allegories and existential conversations), while in the first one (Seagull…) the ideas are fused with the action. This makes Illusions a more difficult story to read, except for its final passages, where the action is present and has narrative importance. But hey, do you want to know why this book, despite its monotonous parts, has some very interesting ideas about human existence and a philosophy of life that can free you from suffering? Then let’s talk a bit about Illusions.

As I said before, Illusions is about a messiah who comes to teach the protagonist to be a messiah too, what he teaches him is that life is a dream and that we can all do what we really want to do and that this is the way to freedom.The way Donald Shimoda teaches Richard about all these things is that they both spend time together, traveling in their vintage airplanes and taking people for rides, a very simple and free life that allows them to talk about existence and practice miracles along the way, things like walking on water, swimming on land or walking through walls. It’s all about understanding that the ideations we have in our minds are actually limitations that we impose on ourselves by seeing life in a structured way, when the truth is that life is a dream of what in the novel is named as the “is” (the self I suppose). Also, as I said before, the way the novel is written may seem monotonous to some people, as everything is set up with a lot of dialogues in the form of conversations, where Donald may even seem a bit heavy or mumbo jumbo with his know-it-all attitude. To be honest, the first time I read this story I liked it much more than I do now, this reading prior to the review I found it much harder to keep my attention, except towards the end of the story, where the actions take over the plot, albeit somewhat abruptly.

Something interesting about the story is that it is written in a circular way, it all starts with some words written on a draft, it is a story about a person who is born in Indiana and has a very normal life until he recovers memories of other lives, these memories make him strong and wise. Then, other people come to him for advice and he asks them a question; what would they all do if God commanded them to be happy for as long as they live? This is the premise of the story, it is the reason for the violent denouement over the ending, it is the foundation of all the conversations Richard and Donald have throughout the story and it is the reason Donald chooses Richard to teach him the ways of the messiah. And the whole thing takes on a circular nuance because in the epilogue, Richard has a dream where he meets Donald (posthumously) and Donald asks him to write a book containing the teachings of the messiahs, Richard does not want to do it, but ends up accepting Donald’s request and starts writing, which is how the last words of the novel are identical to the first. So the whole time we’ve been reading something that ended but starts at the end, when this idea of writing the things that happened comes to be, but that we already lived through all those things having read the whole novel. Tangled? It made me nauseous too.

Remembering that Lagos Esgri lesson about the point of attack in dramatic stories, I have to say that this story is a very clear example of how to choose that point to build a story. The tale is about a messiah teaching a messiah candidate the job, right? And well, according to the story, a messiah does what he wants, because he knows that the divine goal of life is to be happy. So it is not surprising that at the beginning of the story, Richard lives comfortably and in solitude, he owes nothing to anyone and does what he wants, the only thing he needs is to get rid of the mentality that life is a problem that must be solved at every moment. And that’s when Donald Shimoda shows up and even says, “I’ve been waiting for you”. Could it be that he was waiting for Richard to have this life? The way they meet, flying in old airplanes over the fields, gives the impression that this is the case, although we could also be reading too much between the lines, what do you think?

Before I finish, I cannot but refer to the end of the story, it is a must that cannot be missed. It is a very strange thing because it is at the same time gratifying and at the same time abrupt, the end comes like a heavy stomp on the brake before crashing. Donald is interviewed on the radio about flying over the fields in old airplanes (we don’t know why he is being interviewed) and there he says some controversial things that upset the locals. What he says in summary is that all the people who have done something important for humanity, really what they were doing was living for their own interests with a divinely selfish soul. Something like live and be happy for yourself or live for others and be unhappy. For these words people label him as antichrist and end up shooting him with a shotgun, in a scene very well written by Richard Bach, demonstrating once again his mastery in constructing vivid action sequences (the most interesting aspect of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, I feel). But, even though this scene is so well constructed I couldn’t help but feel that the novel falls into this sequence of events randomly and half disconnected from the rest of the narrative. But what does that matter, if the most interesting thing is when Richard reads the messiah manual, yes seriously, it’s a book that teaches messiahship, right after Donald’s death, and the words he finds there are “Everything in this book can be wrong”. Which I guess is Donald’s last test for Richard, the last threshold to break the lasso of dependency between teacher and student.

That’s all I can say about Richard Bach’s Illusions, I know I said that the book had some monotonous parts, but honestly, when I was younger I found these parts equally interesting, I guess it’s because now I’m a damn cynical nihilist that I can’t enjoy things the way they should be. The first time I read it, I remember this novel having a strong impact on my life, it brought me peace and hope in human existence, beyond the “survival of the fittest” nightmare we’re in right now. That is why I feel that these Bach stories are so important, especially now, because in them you find some very interesting reflections on life and it leads you to think from another perspective, about a world where magic is everywhere, even in those that cause us pain. For all these reasons I feel that if a large number of people read Illusions and other novels by Richard Bach it is more than likely that the author will end up as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.

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