In the highly misleading Author’s Note at the beginning of his most popular novel, Life of Pi, Martel tells the reader that when he went to India, he was working on a novel set in Portugal in 1939, but abandoned it because he couldn’t make it work. If any of that is true, it’s possible that might have been the germ of the book that became The High Mountains of Portugal, although only the shortest of its three novellas is set in Portugal in 1939 (and barely that; it occurs over the night and into the morning of New Year’s Eve, 1938-39). The first story is set in Portugal in 1904, and the last begins in Canada and continues in the US before coming to rest in Portugal in the early 1980s.
This three disparate stories are very different, but are linked in several ways. All three stories feature a male protagonist who has suffered a shattering personal loss, and all three meditate on grief and how it changes us. All three take place in or feature characters from the same village in a remote rural corner of Portugal. And all three feature chimpanzees, in one way or another, though only in the third is an actual live chimp a major character in the story.
First, let’s get the chimp issue out of the way: people who know me know that I am horrified by monkeys. Not scared of them exactly, just — creeped out. Something about them being both so like and so unlike us (the very thing that fascinates the characters in Martel’s book) makes them creepy to me. I have now read three very good books — this one as well as Sara Gruen’s Ape House and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves — which feature our primate cousins in leading roles, and I can’t say I ever find it less creepy to read about them. In this book, I kept thinking that all the companionship and all the insight into how animals live in the moment, that the main character derives from his chimp companion, could have been derived just as well from a good dog, without the disturbing “is he one of us or isn’t he?” reflection that inevitably accompanies any introduction of the non-human primates into a story. So, ick. Loved the book; hated the chimp.