“The High Mountains of Portugal” by Yann Martel, Random House, 352 pages, $27, hardcover
This book is confounding, and I cannot figure out if I should recommend it or not.
I love Yann Martel’s writing — it’s precise and beautiful; almost meditative. He chooses his words carefully and his sentences plead for your attention, so even if you are not enjoying the work, it is impossible to ignore the thoughtfulness of his writing.
“The High Mountains of Portugal” is actually three short books in one, with only a slight connection between them. I was ambivalent about the first story, not a fan of the second, and loved the last.
Around 1900, a man named Tomas has experienced devastating loss. His son, lover and father have all recently died, and he, understandably, is not dealing well with the grief. He has started walking backward — turning his back on God and expressing the abandonment he feels.
Tomas finds the diary of a priest and is inspired to start a journey to the high mountains of Portugal, where he thinks the clergyman may have left a crucifix. He borrows a car — one of the very first in the area — from his uncle to take him to the high mountains. The story of his travels contain a lightness necessary to keep the story afloat, but it stretches on for too long.
And then we move on to the story of Dr. Lozora, a coroner in the same area in the 1930s. His wife goes to visit him and launches into a soliloquy about the similarities between Agatha Christie mysteries and the murder of Jesus Christ.
The length and breadth of her speech is a bit off-putting, but what’s even more jarring is the doctor’s second visitor that evening.
A villager rolls in her dead husband packed in a suitcase and asks for an autopsy on him. And things only get more strange from there.
The last story, again jumping forward in time, tells the tale of a Canadian senator who has recently lost his wife.
He is wading through the sorrow as he visits an animal sanctuary and makes a connection with a chimp. On a whim, he decides to adopt the animal and move both of them to his ancestral home in — you guessed it — the high mountains of Portugal.
I found the connection that he makes with his ape, Odo, delightful, and loved his acclimation to a simpler culture.
The second and third stories contain references that help make connections with the first story, rewarding the reading who is paying attention.
“The High Mountains of Portugal” also examines the effects of grief on various characters.
All in all, I’m glad I waded through the middle portion of the novel because the last story and the ending were worth it.
Follow Ellen Zielinski on goodreads, tinyurl.com/goodreadsellen.