The first book by Yann Martel that I read was Life of Pi and I loved it. It did not, however, spur me to immediately look into the rest of his work, until I saw The High Mountains of Portugal. I found in this latest work, the same quirkiness and unusual look at the world that so much charmed me in Life of Pi, as well as the lively descriptions and the plot line that slowly builds to take you somewhere completely unexpected. Martel is unencumbered by any attachment to realism (with some surprising results).
Some of the descriptions are really quite flavourful such as the one of the wife of a pathologist who is one of the main characters.
When he met her for the first time — it was in the cafeteria of the university — she was the most alluring creature he’d ever seen, a serious girl with a beauty that lit him up. At the sight of her, song filled his ears and the world glowed with colour. His heart thumped with gratitude. But quickly she rolled her eyes and told him to stop twittering. It became clear to him that his mission was to listen to her and respond appropriately and not to annoy her with oral frivolity. She was the rich earth and the sun and the rain; he was merely the farmer who got the crop going. He was an essential but bit player. Which was fine with him. He loved her then and he loves her now. She is everything to him. She is still the rich earth and the sun and the rain and he is still happy to be the farmer who gets the crop going.
The pathologist thinks of this as his wife shows up at his office late one evening when he is working. She wishes to talk about a point of theology, which she relates to the works of Agatha Christie. It turns out though that this is only taking place in the pathologist’s mind since he is a widower. This reminded me of Nina, the main character in the movie “Truly, Madly, Deeply” whose boyfriend Jamie returns to her has a ghost to give her advice, to comfort her, to speak with her.
This novel is built from three inter-related tales spanning a century and all three of them take place in part in the high mountains of Portugal and the village of Tuizelo.
One of the elements that link all three tales is the presence of a chimpanzee, that appears in different ways, for reasons that are not always limpid.
[Mr. Martel: Why the chimpanzee?]
A wooden one, a dead one, a very large, very much alive one.
My favorite part in the book is the third tale which features a Canadian senator of Portuguese origin, Peter, who bought a chimpanzee and moves with him to Tuizelo, the village of his birth, in the high mountains of Portugal. The daily interactions with the ape have a profound effect on Peter.
While Odo has mastered the simple human trick of making porridge, Peter had learned the difficult animal skill of doing nothing. He’s learned to unshackle himself from the race of time and contemplate time itself. As far as he can tell, that’s what Odo spends most of his time doing: being in time, like one sits by a river, watching the water go by. It’s a lesson hard learned, just to sit there and be.
I had a chuckle reading this part as a realized why the chimp’s name of Odo sounded so familiar… It reminded me of a simple-minded servant called Hodor in Games of Thrones who was named this way because the only thing he could say was “Hodor”….
All three tales are essentially quests: quest for an object, quest for the answer to a question, quest for meaning, quest for the cause of an unfathomable emotion. In the end, there may be wonder or horror and not necessarily closure… But I was fascinated by the pursuit.
Martel, Yann. The High Mountains of Portugal. Spiegel and Grau, New York, NY, 2016.