Fifteen years after the wildly successful Life of Pi, Yann Martel returns with a new novel set in Portugal. Those who enjoyed the Man Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi may notice familiar themes of loss and faith but also an absence of the playfulness that worked so well before.
The High Mountains of Portugal is made up of three parts set in different time periods, beginning with “Homeless” in 1904. The story opens in Lisbon and follows Tomás, a young man who has recently lost his wife, child and father in rapid succession. In a state of grief that turns his life around, Tomás begins walking backward. “[I]n walking backwards, his back to the world, his back to God, he is not grieving. He is objecting. Because when everything cherished by you in life has been taken away, what else is there to do but object?”
He also becomes obsessed with the diary of a 17th-century priest stationed in Africa, taking refuge in a man equally perplexed and unmoored by his surroundings. The diary leads Tomás on a quest to find a crucifix in the high mountains of Portugal; what follows is a strange mixture of slapstick comedy and meditation on loss as Tomás attempts to drive to his destination (he has never driven before, and he’s really bad at it). Much attention is paid to the countryside and his rage toward God but not to the people Tomás lost, so becoming invested in his misadventures is difficult.
The second section, “Homeward,” seems to have little to do with the first. From an arduous cross-country romp, we’re plopped into the office of Eusebio Lozora, a pathologist working on New Years Eve in 1938. He receives two strange visits, the first from his wife, who delivers a long, pedantic speech on the connection between the Gospels and Agatha Christie.
The second visit is from Maria Dores Passos Castro, carrying a suitcase that contains the body of her dead husband. She insists that Eusebio perform an autopsy right away, and what is revealed makes little sense: “Filling Rafael Castro’s chest and abdomen, lying completely in peaceful repose, are a chimpanzee and, wrapped in this chimpanzee’s protective arms, a bear cub, small and brown.”
Without warning, Martel pushes us into a realm of surrealism that feels forced and hollow and leaves us grasping for threads of connection. One assumes that the sections of the novel will intersect and illuminate each other, but “Homeward” offers far more questions than answers.
The final segment, “Home,” is by far the most straightforward and enjoyable. In keeping with Martel’s fascination with animal and human interactions, Canadian politician Peter Tovy moves to his birthplace of Tuizelo, Portugal, after the death of his wife and seeks comfort by befriending a chimpanzee.
When Martel is less concerned with lofty meditations or being provocative or experimental, the real heart of the story shines through, as when Peter explains why he’s given everything up to live alone with an ape. “I think we all look for moments when things make sense. Here, cut off, I find these moments all the time, every day.”
Peter’s explorations are much more poignant than Tomás’, perhaps because they are treated with more respect, more silence. There is a sweetness in the characters, and we’re given time to enjoy the developing relationship between man and animal. Dealing with grief in such a way is primal and touching.
In the end, The High Mountains of Portugal feels like Martel’s attempt to create an allegory for sorrow; more often than not, it rings flat because we’re not invested in the characters, nor do we have enough details to care much about them. Much more interesting are Martel’s subtle observations on how humans are able to survive and grow even in times of extreme grief and duress, how sometimes the worst experiences can turn out to be the best.
Dana De Greff is a writer in Miami.