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.
That said, the chimp (or chimps) in this story do matter, because one of the things this book muses on is what it means to be human; what, if anything, makes us essentially different from chimpanzees — and is this a good or a bad thing?
The first story follows the adventures of a young man named Tomas, driving across Portugal in search of a strange religious relic, but also attempting to cope with overwhelming grief. Juxtaposed against the stark sorrow is the ridiculous spectacle of Tomas, who has never driven or even seen an automobile before, trying to do all this in his uncle’s prized Renault. Martel describes the process of driving a car in the very earliest days of motor travel with a degree of loving and often hilarious detail that, judging by reviews, readers find either enchanting or tedious. I liked this part a lot, myself.
Rather than learning the ending to Tomas’s story, we them jump to the second novella, which takes places on a single night in a pathologist’s office. The scene first appears to be a lengthy and philosophical conversation about books and religion between the Dr. Lozora and his wife, but then it takes a sudden and truly weird turn into magic realism, leaving the reader to question everything they’ve just read. This is the only place where the book departs from realism, and it gives just a little of the flavour of the final chapters of Life of Pi — but Martel doesn’t linger in this realm for long.
Next we’re off to early-1980s Canada, where Peter, an MP-turned-senator who has recently been widowed, takes an unexpected journey with an even less expected companion (OK, he goes to Portugal with a chimp; I’ve basically already told you that much) to assuage his grief. Here the reflection on what it means to be human is most pointed and deliberate; here, too, we find the links that tie the other two stories together (although these links don’t tell us the end of Tomas’s story, nor make what happens in Dr. Loroza’s story any less weird, I promise you).
The High Mountains of Portugal is not a plot-driven novel; it’s a collection of three linked novellas, in none of which does plot matter very much. Ideas, character, setting — this is what this book is about. If you’re interested in Martel’s ideas, like the characters, and love being drawn into the lovingly detailed setting, then you will love this book, as I did. If not, you are in for a hearty dose of “WTF did I just read?”
I’m fascinated by what happens to writers who have a huge, monster bestselling book (often followed by a big-budget, award-winning movie adaptation), either earlier in their careers, or after toiling away producing acclaimed but less-successful books for years. Harper Lee, famously, never (intentionally) published another book after To Kill a Mockingbird; J.D. Salinger became a recluse after the success of Catcher in the Rye, publishing short stories and novellas but never another full-length novel. In our own era I’ve followed with interest the careers of several writers (John Green, Cheryl Strayed, Elizabeth Gilbert) who, after paying their dues with books that were published to mild acclaim, found themselves completely swept off their feet by a huge blockbuster. As these are all writers whose active social media presence allows fans the illusion that we know what they’re thinking (something neither Lee nor Salinger would likely have allowed even if they had lived in the age of Twitter), I’ve followed with interest their stories of how a huge success affects what you do next.
By any standards, you’d have to put Yann Martel in this category — a hard-working Canadian writer whose first two books garnered little attention, who was then thrust into literary superstardom by the massive success of Life of Pi (and, later, the movie based upon that book). Apart from the obvious big boon of making enough money that Martel probably doesn’t have to worry about whether the Canada Council is giving him a grant this season, how does that kind of success change a writer? Martel’s first post-Pi novel, Beatrice and Virgil, was not very well reviewed. High Mountains is getting better reviews in general, I think, but a quick scroll through Goodreads shows that some readers really didn’t like it (of course, a quick scroll through Goodreads will tell you that about any book, no matter how highly acclaimed).
Life of Pi was a popular success because along with a lot of beautiful writing and deep thoughts about God, Martel gave the reader a single, engaging main character, a strong and suspenseful plot, and a killer twist at the end. The High Mountains of Portugal offers the deep thoughts and the gorgeous language without any of the crowd-pleasers — if you turn the pages of this book hoping to find out what happens to Tomas after he discovers the relic he’s been seeking, you’ll be disappointed when you’re thrust into another story, and perhaps puzzled as to what the point is of these three disparate stories. But if Life of Pi has earned Yann Martel anything other than several million dollars and the right to be snarky to and about our former prime minister, it’s earned him the right to do whatever the heck he wants in the way of exploring language and ideas. In Portugal (even if not in 1939, that much), he does exactly that.