Yann Martel’s latest novel, The High Mountains of Portugal is a unique reading experience. Divided in three parts, “Homeless”, “Homeward” and “Home” Martel tells a story that transcends time but held together by, essentially relics of the past. The book is almost set up to mimic a religious text – or, at least mimic the types of stories that make up religious mythology.
Although the three sections of the book all form an over-arching story of it’s own, since the book is broken up in three parts, I will discuss a little about each part.
The introductory story titled Homeless begins with a man named Tomas in the year 1904 who is presented with a the Biblical Job-like predicament. His wife, child and father all die within a few days of each other and in protest to this divine injustice Tomas begins to walk backwards. In Tomas’ possession however he has an old diary that speaks of a religious artifact that, according to the diary will upturn religion as it is known. Tomas sets out on a quest, using the latest marvel of his age, and automobile to find this holy relic that is spoken of in the diary. The relic is a crucifix with a chimpanzee.
The second story, Homeward is set on New Years of 1939. I personally enjoyed this section the most. This section is the story of a mortician who is visited by the ghost of his wife who comes to discuss Jesus Christ and Agatha Christie and the interesting parallels that exist between the Gospels and Christie’s novels. This part of the book essentially reveals what Martel is attempting to do. Shortly after the discussion with the ghost of his dead wife, the Mortician is visited by a woman hauling with her a suitcase. Inside the suitcase is the corpse of her late husband. The woman requests that the mortician perform an autopsy on the course so she can learn about the mans life. When the mortician does the autopsy he starts pulling out things that made up the mans life. In the chest cavity the mortician pulls out a chimpanzee holding a bear cub. The wife then climbs into the now empty body and requests that the mortician sew her up with the chimpanzee and bear cub, essentially becoming one of the desires that the man lived for.
The final story, Home takes place in 1981 and is about a Canadian senator who after losing his wife through a sequence of events essentially adopts a chimpanzee and gives up his entire life to live with it in Portugal, incidentally in the same small village that the two previous stories take place. Once again we have a Biblical parallel here where the chimp is a stand in for Jesus. It is a subtle reference to when Jesus tells a rich man to give up everything he owns and follow him. The Senator lives side by side with this chimpanzee until witnessing a rare miracle. In his adventures with the ape, he discovers the early relic and learns of the peculiar autopsy involving the chimp in the chest cavity of the man.
I’ll be honest, I will be thinking about this story for awhile. All three stories are tied together with a premise that humans are not fallen angels but rising apes and Martel uses an ape as a place holder for Jesus, first as a relic, then dwelling in the ‘heart’ of a man then finally as prophet who is followed to a Heaven that is represented as The High Mountains Of Portugal. All in all the story was enjoyable, I’ll be revisiting the middle story in time.
★★★★ THE HIGH MOUNTAINS OF PORTUGAL by Yann Martel