The Book of Flying | “The City in the Mountains” [pt. 2]

a novel

by Keith Miller

“‘No one can live forever,’ said Pico but Zarko was bent over his sketchbook muttering ‘Forever young, forever young'”  (Miller, 141).

I’ll be upfront and say that this chapter was the longest one yet. I also don’t have a lot of love for it. There are interesting questions about artists and creativity going on here, but it feels like it drags just a tad.


Remember that jerk who abandoned Solya when she couldn’t be a tightrope walker? Well, he meets him and learns that Zarko’s a pickpocket. It’s how he pays for his extravagant meals and lifestyle. As he tells Pico,

“‘I steal from anyone idiot enough to leave their coins where I can reach them. They owe it to me. I make their lives beautiful. My paintings have changed the way this city sees, their very faces have been altered by my eyes'” (135).

and furthermore that:

“‘All artists are thieves. All art is thievery…Of course a painter would make a better pickpocket than a poet. My fingers are more accustomed to deceit. I don’t lie with my tongue but I lie on paper and canvas and the world succumbs to my untruths so that they become truths'” (135).

As a writer (and therefore an artist myself), I wanted to stop and think about Zarko’s implication.

While I agree that artists do create by taking and mixing ideas, sensations, and other bits of life and imagination, Zarko has an imperious self-grandiose attitude that I find distasteful. And by saying he steals and lies, it sounds like he’s saying he can take whatever he wants from others and the world and use them anyway he wants. He doesn’t seem to have any sense of respect for others.

So, yes, artists do lie, insofar as a fantasy world or fairy tales aren’t real. But the magic of that kind of lying is creating the belief it is real. Not deceiving people or telling lies that become truth because your work is beautiful enough to sway people.

There’s probably more I could say, but I’m still digesting it. If I have any more (maybe better?) thoughts, I’ll post them later.

Pico also mentions how he used to be a thief when he lived in the woods with Adevi and her band. But what does it mean to steal?

Zarko sees his stealing as his right. This speaks of a philosophy where stealing or taking from others is not a crime, so long as it’s done by someone with artistic talent.

Mr. Rabbit in comparison, while unable to fit Pico’s idea of an artist, does not steal from others. Yes, he imprisoned the nightingale-girl, but he felt remorse for doing so. Furthermore, he wants to educate and spread knowledge. Yes, it’s dry knowledge, but that’s an important part of life. Zarko just acts like non-artists are there for his own pleasure. (Blargh! I really don’t like him.)

I suspected when Solya was first introduced as a listener to the sad tales of men that she was a prostitute. This is confirmed later in the chapter. And I must say, I like the diversity of the prostitutes:

“the tall one with haunches like pumpkins, the pretty midget, the one with three breasts, the tattooed with flowers like a garden in girl form, the one muscled like a mason, the legless one, the one who wore a muzzle that she not rip out the throats of the men she attended to, the children whose breasts had only begun to wobble at their blouses, the obese whores and wraiths, those who swung quirts and hooks, those who brandished feather dusters or soft cords or brass-knobbed walking sticks, purveyors of pain, terror, tenderness” (137).

We learn that one of them, Narya, is writing a novel. (Yay! I always love female novelists in stories.) This happens because Pico is getting starved for books and Solya takes him down to Narya’s den where she writes and has books.

Later the three of them and Zarko visit the Owl and Anvil. They all sing or recite little snippets and Pico recites poetry. The only outstanding part about this is the return of Pico’s artiste attitude. He is now “among those who elevated beauty over moneymaking, who revered what he did, holding the subversive jig and squirm of hand and eye and voice in pursuit of loveliness holy above the liturgy of trade and manners that cohered and stifled ordinary lives” (144).

Okay. A few thoughts:

  • while it’s nice to have people understand and share what you enjoy, people do need money to live. Sometimes having an income is more important than waxing poetic
  • why is the idea of creating art superior to “ordinary lives”? What does that mean?

Soon after this, we learn a little bit about Narya’s history. I really liked it, but I didn’t really have much to say about it, other than it was very striking and distinct.

A few other reactions, mostly about female characters:

  • I miss Adevi. There’s just a mention of her in the text (“Adevi had taught him how to handle a knife” (150)), but it reminded me of how much I liked her.
  • Pico gets a job at a restaurant and the owner is an amazing cook. But,

“That night as they drank, this woman, crushed as the butts she discarded, visage ghastly as a crusted cauldron, confided that she had sold her looks to the devil in exchange for his recipes” (151).

Couldn’t she have been a naturally talented cook? Why did she have to be a beauty before? This whole chapter felt so high-flown and arty. (Why was it so long?)

Although I do have to agree with the way Narya thinks of writing and stories.

“‘All is rumor. It’s why we write, it’s why we sing, it’s why we make love here in the city, enraptured and captivated by fear. For generations we have lived with the knowledge that some must…’

‘But don’t you want to be free?’

‘Why do you think I write?’ She tapped he’d been reading. ‘I travel far from this city’s winding streets in these pages.'” (159).

Her writing is her freedom and I love that.

Pico eventually has sex with Solya. By now, his perspective on sex has change since his time with Adevi. He no longer is as concerned about keeping himself only for Sisi.

One rainy day, they discuss love and what it is. When Solya asks “‘What is love anyway?'”, my first thought was: respect, tenderness, honesty, conversationBut then I realized they meant love, broadly speaking. Though I think all types of love should have honesty and respect (and conversation is always a bonus).

And then later, on another night, Solya asks why he doesn’t publish his poems. Pico says he doesn’t need or want the money. So Solya asks why he writes them then? He answers with “‘Why do women have children?'” (166).

Wow, way to 1. link women with reproductive ability, and thus perpetuate cisnormative bodies, and 2. correlate woman who have the organs to carry children inside themselves to a creative desire to write poetry, as if having children is a special call for women.

Unless he means the ciswoman who want to have children. I suppose that’s okay. But it still seems cisnormative to me.

Here’s a quick summary of the rest of the chapter: it snows, fun outside, Narya refuses to go to Zarko, Solya gives herself over to the funeral march, Pico calls together a remembrance dinner for her, Zarko finds out they were lovers, duel, he dies, Narya decides to leave and go to his city by the sea, she takes his dream (so what has become of him?), he leaves and heads into the mountains to continue his search.

next week Pico continues up the mountains 



  • propinquityn. 1. nearness in place; proximity; 2. nearness of relation; kinship; 3. affinity of nature; similarity; 4. nearness in time.
  • lapidary: n. a worker who cuts, polishes,and engraves precious stones.
  • vagariesn. 1. an unpredictable or erratic action, occurrence, course, or instance; 2. a whimsical, wild, or unusual idea, desire, or action.
  • erogenousadj. 1. especially sensitive to sexual stimulation, as certain areas of the body; 2. arousing or tending to arouse sexual desire; sexually stimulating.


Narya: “‘Lonely? Sometimes I can hardly sleep my characters chatter so, clamoring to have their voices immortalized'” (159).

Narya: “‘we’re all trying to find a story, like a treasure buried beneath our city'” (165).

Works Cited:

Miller, Keith. The Book of Flying: A Novel. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2004. Print.


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