Flight

Mario Vargas Llosa is the 2010 Nobel laureate in Literature. His most recent novel, El sueño del celta ("The Dream of the Celt") is published by Alfaguara. This essay is from the collection Touchstones (Faber and Faber)

How I lost my fear of flying

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 realize 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 emotion or dispelling terror, so that even though rationally I was convinced by the figures that ploughing through the skies inside a plane is infinitely 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 a copy 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.

Continues in issue 19. Order now.

Translated by John King

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