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The High Mountains of Portugal

by Yann Martel

Grief engenders both emotional and physical exile for the characters in Yann Martel’s fourth novel, told in three intersecting tales spanning nearly a century. A trio of men who have each suffered great losses set out on individual quests to heal their broken hearts – journeys that come together in unexpected ways. Martel likens love to a “house with many rooms,” and the three narratives are called, respectively, “Homeless,” “Homeward,” and “Home.” The story is layered with elements of allegory, fable, and magical realism, all of which work better in some places than in others.

25489094The first narrative begins in Lisbon in 1904, when a young man called Tomás discovers a 17th-century priest’s diary, which reveals the existence of a hidden treasure. Tomás has lost his wife, son, and father within a single week. However, because the reader knows little of Tomás’s relationship with his family, this horrific series of tragedies is not appropriately moving.

Tomás met his wife, Dora, at his uncle’s house, where she worked as a domestic servant. It is not clear what attracted him to her. We are told that his past experiences with prostitutes were “terribly exciting and then terribly depressing.” His first sexual experience with Dora, by contrast, was “terribly exciting and then terribly exciting.” But this summary is too generic to have any impact. His description of her as “warm and soft, and gentle and graceful and beautiful and caring” lacks any specific sensuous detail that might bring these characters or this moment to life.

After the loss of his family, Tomás decides to walk backward, an artificial eccentricity: “his back to the world, his back to God, he is not grieving. He is objecting.” However, given that Tomás is not otherwise particularly quirky, his regressive gait as a metaphor underlining his journey backward into the past is rather forced. At one point, Tomás’s uncle says, “Why don’t you walk like a normal person? Enough of this nonsense!” This expostulation echoes the reader’s sentiments.

Tomás makes his way to the mountains in one of Europe’s first automobiles, and here the story gains momentum with some witty and welcome comedy. The region known majestically as the High Mountains of Portugal actually contains nothing but mere hills, and the only summits are huge pockmarked boulders. The landscape is vividly evoked: “In Portugal the sunshine is often pearly, lambent, tickling, neighbourly. So too … the dark. There are dense, rich, and nourishing pockets of gloom … in the shadows of houses … in the hidden sides of large trees. During the night, these pockets spread, taking to the air like birds.”

More so than Thomás’s story, the middle tale is enthralling and richly imagined. Thirty-four years after Tomás’s excursion, a pathologist obsessed with Agatha Christie murder mysteries becomes drawn into the repercussions from Tomás’s quest, and finds himself at the heart of a real murder.

Eusebio Lozora knows that “every dead body is a book with a story to tell,” making for “a hard-headed kind of poetry.” Though he is capable of analyzing causes of death, he knows nothing of pain. “He can find out what pushed them over [death’s threshold] but never how it felt.” He learns a crucial lesson when a peasant woman appears at his office demanding that he conduct an autopsy on her beloved husband – in her presence. (She carries her husband’s corpse inside a large, beat-up suitcase.) When Dr. Lozora opens up the man’s body, he finds an assortment of treasures and creatures; the man’s carcass illuminates the way he had lived.

Fifty years on, an Ottawa senator named Tovy, grieving his wife’s death, takes refuge in northern Portugal – not with a tiger (as might have been the case for an earlier Martel protagonist), but a chimpanzee. Tovy’s adoption of this creature from the Institute for Primate Research in Oklahoma requires a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader, as does his transport of his new best friend back to Canada and then on to Portugal. Despite the ways this scenario strains credibility, Tovy’s bonding with the chimp provides some of the most delightful scenes in the novel.

Tovy chooses rural Portugal, where his parents were from, as a destination. Like many emigrants, Tovy’s family fled the area in a state of want. As one character explains, “Poverty is a native plant here. Everyone grows it, everyone eats it.” Once safely in Canada, Tovy’s parents turned their backs on their origins. Not only does Tovy’s journey allow him to return to his roots, it is here that the novel’s century-old quest comes full circle.

The High Mountains of Portugal poses intriguing questions about loss, faith, suffering, and love. But the menagerie that peppers this story – in addition to the chimp, an Iberian rhinoceros also makes an appearance – is surely less toothsome than the tiger that riveted over 12 million readers internationally. Alas, that tiger had more bite.