Mario Vargas Llosa was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010 “for his cartography of the structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat.” Peru’s foremost writer, he was awarded the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world’s most distinguished literary honor, and the Jerusalem Prize. His many works include The Feast of the Goat, The Bad Girl, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, The War of the End of the World, and The Storyteller. He lives in London.
This essay, making its U.S. debut, is excerpted from Touchstones: Essays on Literature, Art and Politics.
There are certain naïve people who believe that a fear of flying is, or can be explained by, a fear of death. They are wrong: fear of flying is fear of flying, not of death, a fear as particular and specific as a fear of spiders, or of the void, or of cats, three common examples among the thousands that make up the panoply of human fears. Fear of flying wells up suddenly, when people not lacking in imagination and sensitivity realise that they are thirty thousand feet in the air, travelling through clouds at eight hundred miles an hour, and ask, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ And begin to tremble.
It happened to me, after many years getting on and off aircraft as often as I change my shirts. I continued getting on these airborne missiles, but for a long time, I was sweating buckets on every flight, especially when we hit turbulence. My friend Saso, a most delightful air hostess who feels safer above the clouds than on terra firma, and who guffawed at my panic in the air, tried to cure me with the aid of statistics. She proved to me what everyone knows. That to travel by plane is infinitely safer than travelling by car, boat, train and even by bicycle or on skates, because every year many more people have accidents using those forms of transport. And even that going on foot, on a gentle and innocuous walk, is, statistically speaking, more dangerous than going in a plane. But, in my case, abstract statistics are incapable of stirring emotions or dispelling terror, so that even though rationally I was convinced by the figures that ploughing through the skies inside a plane is safer than sleeping in my own bed, I continued to have a terrible time on every flight.
My late friend, the Uruguayan novelist Carlos Martínez Moreno, who once travelled by plane with me, spent the whole flight clutching an edition of Madame Bovary, worn and tattered from so much handling, that he did not read, but stroked continually. It was an amulet that guaranteed him a peaceful and safe flight. He’d taken this book on his first flight and it would later accompany him on all other flights, because intuition, fantasy or madness told him that it was this novelistic talisman and not the smooth running of the engines or the skill of the pilots that kept the planes he travelled in free of all harm and mishap. But Martínez Moreno’s remedy did not work for me, because of my strong scepticism of any form of witchcraft (especially its modern variants), or simply because I have yet to come across the spell that might convince me and convert me to the faith of witchcraft.
A Puerto Rican friend, a wealthy widow who travels the world, revealed to me that she had cured her fear of flying through whisky. She’d always take a good supply with her on board, hidden in a small bag, and at the second or third sip, the ship could turn somersaults or be tossed about by the wind and she’d be giggling and happy, impervious to everything. I tried to apply her formula, but it did not work for me. I am very allergic to alcohol, and gulps of whisky, far from taking away my fear of flying, just increased it, and gave me headaches, shivers and nausea on top. I would probably have needed to become a hardened alcoholic, seeing little green men, to achieve the indifference to flying that my Puerto Rican friend managed with a few sips of alcohol. The cure would have been more damaging than the illness.
At the other extreme to my Puerto Rican friend, some puritans argue that fear of flying is a result of heavy meals and an immoderate ingestion of spirits (wine and alcohol) on the journey. And for my serenity in the air, they recommended that I should abstain from eating and drinking wine on flights, and just drink large, and, for them, sedating, glasses of water. It didn’t work. Quite the reverse, these forced diets made me very miserable, and added to my fear the demoralising torture of hunger and constant peeing.
Seconal, sanax and all those other pills invented to cure wakefulness and abolish insomnia, are no use to me either. There are marvellous people (they merit both my admiration and my envy) who become immediately somnolent on a plane and who sleep peacefully through the whole flight, lulled by the buzzing of the reactors. And others who, in order to reach that same state, stuff themselves with pills, which daze and anaesthetise them. But sleeping pills gave me palpitations or the most dreadful nightmares in which I saw myself sweating with terror inside a plane. So the relative, artificial sleep induced by medicaments did not take my fear away, but rather displaced it onto an oneiric and subconscious plane, and, as another side effect, turned me into a depressed zombie by the end of the flight.
The solution came in a most unexpected way, on a flight between Buenos Aires and Madrid which, by chance, was commemorating the first flight between those cities (by an Iberian Airline Douglas DC4) on 22 September 1946. I bought at Ezeiza airport a copy of a short novel by Alejo Carpentier that I had not read: The Kingdom of This World. Nothing had prepared me for the surprise. From the first lines of the story, which recreates the hallucinating life of Henri Christophe and the building of the famous Citadel in Haiti, this superbly written and even better constructed narration in which, as in all literary masterpieces, nothing could be added or taken away, absorbed me body and soul and took away my surroundings, transporting me, for the ten hours or so of the flight, away from the frozen starry night into a prodigious epic account of Haiti in the previous century, where the most ferocious violence intermingled with the most fevered imagination, and everyday and trivial events blurred into miracles and legends. I read the final lines when the plane touched down in Barajas; the book had lasted the flight, and had taken away my fear for the entire journey.
It is a remedy that, from that time on, has never failed me, so long as I choose for each flight a masterpiece whose spell is both total and lasts for exactly the time that I am defying the law of gravity. Of course, it is not easy to choose the right work, in terms of quality and length, for each trip. But with practice I have developed a sort of instinct to choose the right novel or story (poetry, plays or essays are not as strong antidotes against the fear of flying). I have also discovered that it is not necessary to have new works, for rereading can be just as effective provided the work in question can cast a spell that is as new and refreshing on third or fourth reading as it was the first time. Here is a list (as a token of my appreciation) of these reliable friends who in my recent, successful, attempts to emulate Icarus, helped me to conquer my fear of flying: Bartleby and Benito Cereno by Melville; The Turn of the Screw by Henry James; ‘The Pursuer’ by Cortázar; Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by R. L. Stevenson; The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway; ‘The Monkey’ by Isak Dinesen; Pedro Páramo by Rulfo; Complete Works and Other Stories by Monterroso; ‘A Rose for Emily’ and ‘The Bear’ by Faulkner and Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Fortunately for me, the literary chemist store has limitless reserves of these medicines, so I still have plenty of plane journeys (and good reading) ahead.