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

2 thoughts on “The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel”

  1. I like the idea of a quest framework for the novel, but I’m most curious about the ways in which all these sections and characters and objects intersect, which I feel they must do, even if only in subtle ways, for I recall, from Life of Pi, what a craftsman this writer is. I’m really looking forward to reading this one, and I like all the quotes you’ve shared here. Thanks.

  2. You will love the reading of this then: the intersection of the stories and the characters’ lives is exactly what lies in store for the reader. Thanks for your comments.

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