The High Mountains of Portugal is the latest novel by Life of Pi author, Yann Martel. Published in 2016, the novel consists of 3 separate stories which are loosely connected and all set, or end up in, the remote High Mountains of Portugal.
The first story, entitled “Homeless” is set in 1904 and starts at Lisbon. It is a sad story of a strange young man, Tomas, who, upon discovering an ancient monk’s diary in the museum archive where he works, decides to travel to the High Mountains of Portugal in search of an extraordinary religious artifact created by the monk. With the aid of his wealthy uncle, Tomas sets out on his journey in an automobile, one of the first of its kind, not only in Portugal, but in the world. Tomas’ adventure takes him through remote towns and villages along the road to the High Mountains of Portugal, in an automobile he can barely operate. Along the way, he has many new and strange experiences, not all of which are pleasant, and when he finally reaches his destination, what he finds there will forever change his life.
The second story, “Homeward”, is set in the late 1930’s, about a pathologist, Dr. Eusebio Lozora, who, on New Year’s eve, is visited by a strange woman with a strange request. The elderly woman had traveled all the way from the High Mountains of Portugal seeking a doctor who would perform an autopsy on her recently deceased husband. Despite the unusual circumstances behind the unorthodox request, Dr. Lozora performs the autopsy – the strangest and most amazing one he has ever done.
The third story, “Home”, starts in Canada, in 1989. Peter Tovy is a politician whose wife had recently passed away. During a visit to the United States, Peter visits a primate research facility, and on a whim, decides to buy Odo, one of the facility’s chimpanzees. Grieved by his wife’s passing, Peter decides to leave Canada in search of his ancestral home in the High Mountains of Portugal, taking Odo with him. In the High Mountains of Portugal, Peter and Odo live a peaceful life among the welcoming, though curious villagers. Leaving everything behind in Canada – his life, family, and career, Peter finds peace and solace in the company of Odo, and in his new home, he discovers his ancestors’ extraordinary story.
The three stories in The High Mountains of Portugal make up a bizarre epic tale of love, loss, grief, discovery, and enlightenment. Like The Life of Pi, The High Mountains of Portugal tackles deeply religious and philosophical issues. The stories also seem to try to reconcile religion and science, emphasizing that it is possible to believe in one without abandoning the other. And like The Life of Pi, animals play an important role in this novel as well.
I’ve put off writing this review for quite some time because I didn’t really know what to say about this novel. Of the three stories, I enjoyed the 1st and the 3rd the most, but that’s not to say that I actually understood what they were about. The first story, “Homeless”, was intriguing although Tomas’ adventures on the road to the High Mountains of Portugal seemed quite improbable. The second story, “Homeward”, was a bit tedious because of one character who rambled unceasingly about Christianity and religion, and later relates them to Agatha Christie’s novels. The section was so preachy and ridiculous that I got the feeling that it was included in the novel just so the author could talk about his own religious beliefs. The second half of “Homeward” was more interesting, even though it was more improbable than the first story. The most realistic of the three stories is the last one, “Home,” which is nice and sad, but happy at the same time. The novel is very readable, and has a fable-like quality about it, but except for the first story, I found its religious themes quite off-putting and tiresome.
Besides The Life of Pi, I’ve not read any other novels by Yann Martel, but I’m convinced that most, if not all of them contain animals which are used as allegorical tools to talk about religion and philosophy. In The Life of Pi, it is clearly explained at the end of the novel what the animals in the boat represented, however, in The High Mountains of Portugal, I was at a loss as to what the different animals in the 3 stories really represented. The three stories are interesting in themselves, and the whole is not without its merits, however, I felt that the novel was trying too hard to say something, but in the end failed to convey whatever that something was.
Then again…maybe it’s just me.
The High Mountains of Portugal (2016) – Yann Martel
Spiegel and Grau; 332 pages (paperback)
Personal rating: 2.5/5