The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

I received this book as a gift and it was a wonderful surprise. I had recently watched a video of Life of Pi and enjoyed it very much. I had also read Beatrice & Virgil and found it even more satisfying.

The High Mountains of Portugal is divided into three sections with very intriguing titles: Homeless,High Mountains of Portugal Homeward and Home. The book jacket blurb writes that it is “part quest, part ghost story, part contemporary fable” and it “offers a haunting exploration of great love and great loss. Filled with tenderness, humour, and endless surprise, it takes the reader on a road trip through Portugal in the last century – and through the human soul.”

The tenderness, humour, and endless surprise becomes almost immediately apparent in the first few pages after the opening sentence: “Tomás decides to walk.” He is going to walk across much of Lisbon to his uncle’s estate in “leafy Lapa” which will take about an hour. As he starts out we learn some things about his past and the reason he is walking backwards. His uncle believes that Tomás is grieving but Tomás explains that he is not grieving but rather he is objecting because everything cherished by him in life has been taken away and there is nothing left for him to do but object. This will all be explained to the reader on the walk.

In the breast pocket of his jacket, Tomás carries an old leather diary which is the life and instructions for Father Ulisses Manuel Rosario Pinto for the gift he has left for the Portugese empire. Tomás found the diary very shortly before his life as he knew it was changed forever. Tomás works as an assistant curator at the National Museum of Ancient Art.

In Father Ulisses’ diary, Tomás finds references that prove the father is afflicted by “acute homesickness”. He also eventually finds two letters requesting a gift for a parish in the High Mountains of Portugal which had suffered the destruction by fire of its chancel. He also finds verification of the crucifix having been sent from the African colonies.  Tomás wrote letters and narrowed the possibilities before deciding that he must make a journey to the High Mountains of Portugal.

And so he goes to his uncle’s house and he finds that his uncle is loaning him one of his latest acquisitions: a brand new four-cylinder Renault which he describes as “a masterpiece of engineering”. The only appeal for Tomás in this offer comes from the fact that he has only ten days to accomplish his search for the crucifix. This is happening in 1904 in Lisbon, Portugal, where only “a few of these newfangled devices have lately found their way onto the streets.” For Tomás, this “burgundy-coloured copy” “lacks in any elegance or symmetry” and “its cabin appears to him absurdly oversized compared to the puny stable at the aft into which are stuffed the thirty horses”.

His uncle explains how the car works and Tomás “understands nothing” and “stares dumbly” while his uncle presents him with a manual in French and a French-Portugese dictionary and adds “You must take utmost care to lubricate the automobile properly.” The only thing he likes is the horn, the sound of which makes him laugh.

You will enjoy Tomás’s driving experiences from your vantage point of 2016 and you will find his discovery of the crucifix equally intriguing.

In Part Two, the reader meets Eusebio Lozora, physician and pathologist, in 1938, in Bragança which has a population of 30,000. His wife is Maria Luisa Motaal Lozora who is an “amateur theologian” and takes herself very seriously. His wife “has no patience for death.” She comes to his office on New Year’s Eve and tells him that she has found the solution in the Agatha Christie novels which they both like to read. She brings him a new Christie novel to help him live with both faith and reason: “stories that put reason on brilliant display while also keeping you close to Jesus of Nazareth. That way you can hold on to your faith, should it ever waver.” After she leaves, someone knocks and he thinks she has returned but it is another Maria: Maria Dores Passos Castro. Eusebio performs an autopsy on Maria’s husband with unusual results which reveal a connection with the past and the future.

And thus we come to Part Three, Home. It begins in Toronto in 1981 and is Peter Tovy’s story. He is appointed to the Senate and moves to Ottawa. His wife Clara becomes deathly ill and his son Ben (a medical researcher) separates from his wife and she and his daughter move to Vancouver.

After Clara’s death, Peter realizes he cannot continue in the senate and goes to Oklahoma with three members of parliament and on an open day in the schedule visits a chimpanzee sanctuary, the Institute for Primate Research. Circumstances come about that see him visiting the main population of chimpanzees: “here, inside this windowless building, there is the reality of a dark and dank underworld. The smell hits Peter first, an animal reek of piss and misery, the tang of it made fierce by the heat. ”

“Some cages are empty, but many are not, and those that are not contain one thing and one thing only: a large black chimpanzee.”

“An ear-splitting explosion of shrieking and screaming greets them. Raw fear grips Peter. His breathing is cut short and he stands rooted to the spot.”

Eventually Peter is able to observe the chimpanzees more steadily.They display various levels of aggression or agitation. Peter stops by the cage of the last prisoner because he is struck by the creature’s singular behaviour. Peter looks into the eyes and the creature looks back into his eyes. He hears a hoo-hoo sound. The guide explains that it means hello.

The ape eventually squeezes Peter’s hand without grasping or menace. “Peter doesn’t know why, but his throat tightens and he feels close to tears. Is it that no one since Clara has looked at him like that, fully and frankly, the eyes like open doors?” The ape’s name is Odo. Peter pays fifteen thousand dollars for him and takes him to the High Mountains of Portugal.

You really must read this story for yourself! It will change your life and/or your thoughts.


Beatrice & VirgilLife of Pi

The Lewis Trilogy by Peter May

This trilogy includes The Black House, The Lewis Man and The Chess Men. Peter May “was an award-winning journalist at the age of twenty-one” and “he left newspapers for television and screenwriting, creating three prime-time British drama series”. “Peter now lives  in France where he focuses on writing novels”. (from the bio inside The Chess Men)

These are stories of considerable interest but I found myself most attracted by their setting in the Hebrides Islands and considered the plot an added bonus. (Which it was of course!)

Th epigraphs for The Black House include an A.E.Housman from “Blue Remembered Hills”:

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I wentThe Black House
And cannot come again.”

There is also a Gaelic proverb: Three things that come without asking: fear, love and jealousy.

In this first book Fin Macleod is a cop in Edinburgh and is sent back to Lewis Island to solve a murder there and, of course, journey into his own difficult history on the islands.

The epigraph for The Lewis Man is from “The Old Fools” by Philip Larkin:

That is where they live:
Not here and now, but where all happened once.

From the Prologue of The Lewis Man: “On this storm-washed island three hours off the north-west coast of Scotland, what little soil exists gives the people their food and their heat. It also takes their dead. and, very occasionally, as today, gives one up.”  The people have gone peat-cutting and young Annag’s eyes follow her brothers “down to the fallen peat bank and the arm that lies stretched out towards her, leathery skin like brown parchment, fingers curled as if holding an invisible ball. One leg lies twisted over the other, a head tipped towards the ditch as if in search of a lost life, black holes where the eyes should have been.
For a moment, she is lost in a sea of incomprehension, before realisation washes over her, and the scream is whipped from her mouth by the wind.”The Lewis Man

And so begins The Lewis Man in which Fin has left the police in Edinburgh and returned to Lewis and is working on restoring his parents’ croft. A DNA test determines that the corpse above is a familial match to the father of Fin’s childhood sweetheart.

“Gunn saw the vehicles parked at the roadside from some distance away. The sky was black and blue, brooding, contused, rolling in off the ociean low and unbroken. The first spits of rain were smeared across his windscreen by the intermittent passage of its wipers. The pewter of the ocean itself was punctuated by the whites of breaking waves ten or fifteen feet high, and the solitary blue flashing light of the police car next to the ambulance was swallowed into insignificance by the vastness of the landscape.

Beyond the vehicles, the harled houses of Siader huddled against the prevailing weather, expectant and weary, but accustomed to its relentless assault. Not a single tree broke the horizon. Just lines of rotting fenceposts along the roadside, and the rusting remains of tractors and cars in deserted yards. Blasted shrubs showing brave green tips clung on with stubborn roots to thin soil in anticipation of better days to come, and a sea of bog cotton shifted in ripples and currents like water in the wind.”

The Chess MenThis book ends with Whistler and Fin and the third book, The Chess Men is all about Fin and Whistler and their later lives. The epigraph is:

‘Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.      -the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, xlix

This final part of Fin’s story is as much about music and the Celtic band that Fin was closely associated with in his early university years and his friend Whistler who of all the group was the one who was gifted in so many ways but the one who chose not to attend university and to make the island his home. The chess men were larger than life chess men that he, Whistler, had carved and who are an intimate part of the story in this third volume.

Early in this book, Whistler and Fin are out camping and discover a lost loch which Whistler explains might have drained into another loch and was likely connected with a bog burst. The weight of the water in the higher loch can burst through a layer of amphiloblite and all the material drains down into into a deeper valley. When Fin examines the bottom of the lock with Whistler’s binoculars and sites a “small, single-engined aircraft, cradled among a cluster of boulders, and lying at a slight angle. It appeared to be pretty much intact. The windows of the cockpit were opaque with mud and slime, but the red and white of the fuselage were clearly visible. As were the black-painted letters of its call-sign.”

They know the call-sign and so they go to have a look. And that is where it all begins. A fantastic trio for those with an interest in mysteries which have settings as characters and characters who are of considerable interest!