It’s hard not to have heard of Yann Martel, given all his literary prizes for The Life of Pi, a book I didn’t manage to finish and always meant to pick up again. So when I was given the chance to read his latest offering, The High Mountains of Portugal, I thought perhaps this might be a chance for Martel and I to start over.
The High Mountains of Portugal is a wonderful book, and much more accessible that The Life of Pi – and still full of magic and feeling. This will no doubt make its way onto school texts lists in the years to come.
The High Mountains of Portugal consists of three intertwined stories. Each of the central characters is looking for meaning – for a sense of belonging that was lost to them after a loved one has died. But meaning often comes in strange ways – much like the high mountains of Portugal themselves, which are really gently undulating hills.
The first story follows the trail of Tomas, who in 1904 is looking for something to sustain him after the death of his lover and their son. He expresses his resentment towards God for this loss by literally turning his back on him – and walking backwards through life. He finds meaning and purpose in the diaries of an old priest, which detail a special crucifix he has created to reflect the truth of religion as he sees it after his experiences as a minister in the slave trade. Tomas borrows a motor vehicle – a real wonder in those days – and sets out for the high mountains of Portugal to a remote village where he has deduced the crucifix is. This action has disastrous consequences, which are only fully revealed in the final narrative.
The second story is set 35 years later. A pathologist works long hours into the night in his surgery where he receives two surprise visitors. The first is his wife, with whom he has a lengthy conversation about the religious parallels in Agatha Christie novels. The second is a woman from the high mountains of Portugal who demands he perform an autopsy on her husband – with surprising results.
The third story had me the most captivated – the story of a widowed Canadian senator who connects with a chimpanzee on a business trip and leaves his old life behind to live with his new companion in the high mountains of Portugal. It is in this story that all the loose threads from the previous stories are drawn together. While this premise may sound mad, the relationship between Peter the senator and Odo the Chimpanzee is marvellous and spellbinding.
Touching, funny, and insightful this is a beautiful book that is well worth reading.