An­other slice of Pi

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Daniel Herborn is a Syd­ney writer and lawyer.

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.

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