By Yann Martel
Spiegel & Grau (February 2, 2016)
Reviewed by Mary Vensel White
Fans of Yann Martel’s international bestseller, Life of Pi (2001), will find many familiar elements in his new novel, The High Mountains of Portugal. Once again, Martel plumbs the relationship between storytelling and truth and mixes tragedy with healthy doses of humor. There is another leading character from the animal kingdom; religion and faith are integral themes. But The High Mountains of Portugal is a more difficult, less cohesive read, and will no doubt produce polarized reactions.
The novel is divided into three dissimilar parts. In the first, titled “Homeless,” Tomás, a young man living in Lisbon in 1904, is suffering after the deaths of his lover, his young son, and his father. Rootless and bereft, he borrows an automobile and sets off in search of a religious artifact described in the diary of a 17th-century Portuguese priest. I struggled a bit with this first section, which offers many, many details about the specifics of early automobiles and their care, and seems to be a primer about the dangers of early motoring. As Tomás travels from town to town, he experiences small dramas that are often presented with slapstick comedy, but the humor is a balm masking the overall tragedy of his journey.
In the climax of the first section, Tomás discovers the crucifix he’s been seeking and is shocked to see Christ portrayed as a chimpanzee (by this time, however, the reader doubts Tomás’s sanity). The animal allusion continues in part two, titled “Homeward,” which takes place in 1938. Our protagonist here is a devout pathologist working late on New Year’s Eve. He receives a visit from his cerebral wife, who presents her very detailed, very long theory about the gospels as they relate to Agatha Christie mysteries, which they both enjoy. Her explanation of why Jesus taught in parables, however interesting, felt more suited to an essay than a novel and like the driving sections of the first section, seemed to go on too long. The pathologist receives a second visitor, an elderly woman from the same town in the high mountains where Tomas found the crucifix. She carries a suitcase containing her dead husband, whom she has brought for an autopsy.
Martel is expert at juxtaposing magical realism against the realities of practical life. When the body falls from the suitcase, I was reminded this wasn’t a story to take at face value. The autopsy turns surreal and the doctor discovers a chimpanzee in the body of the deceased, among other things. The uncovering of these items becomes a sort of allegory about life and sorrow that his wife’s theories prepared the reader to digest.
The last section, “Home,” is the story of another man who has lost his wife. Peter Tovy is a Canadian politician lacking joie de vivre. On a trip to Oklahoma, he experiences an odd, unexpected connection with a chimpanzee in a preserve. Impulsively, he buys the chimp and relocates to Tuizelo, the town where he was born in—you guessed it—the high mountains of Portugal. The evolving relationship between Peter and his ape, Odo, is poignant and encompassing, and when the duo climbs the nearby rocks to enjoy the vista, the story achieves a longer view as well. The connections between the three novella-length sections crystallize.
The High Mountains of Portugal is a meditation on grief and love, on religion and reason, on the ways humanity and the natural world cohabit. It was not an easy read by any stretch and I found it at times frustrating and at others, remarkable. This puzzle of a story woke me up in the middle of the night, and I’ve been turning over aspects of it for days. I’m not sure it will appeal to everyone who loved Life of Pi, but I appreciated very much the variety of effects it had on me.
MARY VENSEL WHITE is an author and contributing editor of LitChat. Read her complete bio here.