Another slice of Pi
After the runaway critical and popular success of Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s long-awaited next novel was Beatrice and Virgil, a cluttered meta-fiction that, in part, followed a Martel-like novelist and his efforts to follow a blockbuster hit. It proved an unfortunate case of life imitating art, its sputtering story of a novelist producing an unsatisfying work being itself unsatisfying.
The High Mountains of Portugal splits the difference between the rapturous proselytising of Life of Pi and the structural trickery of its successor, returning to his best-loved novel’s theme of loneliness, loss and animal companionship, as well as worshipping the primal power of storytelling and parables.
Split into three (somewhat) linked novellas titled “Homeless”, “Homeward” and “Home”, a kind of playful literary triptych, the first section sees grieving museum worker Tomas venturing across Portugal in mad, single-minded pursuit of an ancient crucifix. Gradually losing heart and his sense of purpose, he draws inspiration from the journals of Father Ulisses, whose mournful remembrances of his missionary work in Africa turn into an incoherent obsession with the idea of home.
Tomas is given as a gift one of the nation’s first automobiles, a strange and wondrous machine that he struggles to tame. Initially viewed as a cheerful curiosity by those he encounters, his voyage comes to take on a tragicomic tone as he is beset with various physical and automotive ailments. At one point, he emerges from his vehicle hunched and dirty, wildly scratching his unbathed body, a simian figure made a pariah by his unflinching quest for religious grace and solitude.
The story skips forward to the late 1930s, when a pathologist and his wife free associate about Agatha Christie novels and enter into an extended exchange of theories on the enduring appeal of her mystery stories. They ponder that only Christie and Jesus Christ, a figure constructed almost entirely from second-hand ac- counts, are chiefly concerned with the question of “What are we to do with death”. A woman comes to visit his offices, asking for an autopsy of her husband (who she is carrying in a suitcase), and he makes a macabre discovery, sending this thread of the tale spinning off into fantastical territory.
Finally, ageing Canadian politician Peter is jolted out of his ennui when he has a moment of connection with Odo, an intelligent and social ape, at a research facility. With his wife dead and his family having become a scattered and embittered mess, he makes the impulsive decision to buy the animal, abandon his plateauing career and head to the wild beauty of the country he moved from as an infant, Portugal.
Told in unobtrusive, clean prose, The High Mountains of Portugal has the classic feel of a parable, and despite its first third being tied to a specific time of technological advancement, there’s something out of time about Martel’s writing and the shifts across decades only serve to illuminate the essential similarities of its
Yann Martel returns to the themes of Life of Pi
three disparate protagonists, mourning animals ripped from their mates, desperately scraping around for meaning and connection.
While the stories are more thematically than narratively connected, all feature characters whose grief has led to a questioning of their faith. When Tomas loses both his beloved wife and infant son, it makes him question his world view in a way that echoes through all three sections: “In 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?”
Throughout, a thinly submerged desire to escape the pervasiveness and noise of technology to a kind of animalistic simplicity emerges. Apes are seen as only superficially distinct from humanity and some of the tale’s most moving scenes involve the non-verbal but deeply intuitive Odo bonding with Peter, becoming a fixture in the cafe and village of his new home and rough-housing with the local dog population.
The anomaly is the somewhat leaden middle section, at first unavoidably talky and then entering some seriously ghoulish magical realist territory. Its characters feel like mouthpieces and the shift in tone never feels entirely organic, bearing the unwanted spectre of a writer venturing outside their comfort zone, not out of any flash of inspiration but to show they can.
If the details of the characters’ lives are sometimes sketched in broad strokes, that seems indicative of Martel’s decision to cast them in a palette of grey, to position them as mere cogs in sprawling, uncaring bureaucracies. Tomas considers himself “insignificant, replaceable” at the museum where he works, while the pathologist is a dispassionate cataloguer of life and death and even the preepiphany Peter, nominally in one of society’s most influential positions, seems a glorified paper-pusher, shuffling from one committee and campaign to another, shaking hands and kissing babies and changing nothing.
Himself a Spanish-born Canadian, it’s not hard to see echoes of Martel in his last protagonist, who finds himself at home in the isolation and languor of Portugal, where he considers himself “touched with the grace of the ape” and reflects “there’s no going back to being a plain human being. That is love, then.”
Flawed, fascinating and ultimately satisfying, this sees a singular talent reacting against both his previous work and its reception and, just as Peter finds his way to a place of calm, eventually settling into a groove.