I know I’m not alone when I say that Yann Martel’s Life of Pi was one of my favorite novels of the last twenty years. A boy on a lifeboat with a tiger; what a spectacular premise for great fiction. But it wasn’t just a white-knuckle adventure yarn. It was also a thoughtful meditation on world religion, an exercise in unreliable narratives and narrators, a mystery and a puzzle. And then Ang Lee turned it into a movie as rich as the novel itself. It’s also the last novel I read aloud to my children, before they, inevitably, grew, left, scattered.
So to say that I eagerly anticipated reading Martel’s latest novel, The High Mountains of Portugal would be an understatement. I read it with great interest and enjoyment, though it’s certainly a slighter work. When I say that it is one of the stranger novels I’ve read in my life, I don’t mean that as a criticism or dismissal. I just want to describe accurately my experience with what I found to be a very weird book. Let me add, as well, that I couldn’t put it down, and have been thinking about it for days.
It’s essentially three connected novellas, entitled Homeless, Homeward, and Home. They’re narratively and thematically connected; they’re also all three about exploring possible spiritual relationships between humans and chimpanzees. Chimps are not monkeys, but apes, and are the closest mammals genetically to human beings. As such, they’re our closest evolutionary cousins. Hominids may have split from our ape relatives as recently at six million years ago. At least one question this novel poses, therefore, has to do with the religious connections between men and apes, especially as it might emerge in a theologically Christian context.
The first novella, titled Homeless, begins in Lisbon, with a young man named Tomas, in 1904. Tomas works as a researcher, and makes very little money at it, but he is from a prominent family. His Uncle Martim, who loves him dearly and who he loves in return is the only member of his family still living. Tomas’ father, his girlfriend, Dora, and their son, Gaspar, all died in quick succession a year earlier. Since that time, crushed, destroyed by grief, he has been unable to walk forwards. He only is able to walk backwards.
He has become obsessed by a diary found in his research, by a priest from the previous century. Ulisses, this priest, created some object of singular religious devotion, he thinks, probably a crucifix. He is desperate to find it. He has decided that this religious object must have ended up in the church of a small village in the high mountains of Portugal. He has gotten a short leave of absence from work, and has persuaded his uncle to lend him a car, which he intends to drive on his quest. Most of the novella, then, has to do with Tomas’ journey, in a car he is barely able to drive, to find a crucifix made by Father Ulisses. That journey, both comical and horrifying, is at the heart of the novella. I must apologize now for this spoiler, but it’s necessary: when he finds the crucifix, it is not of Christ, but of a crucified chimpanzee. I’ll let it go at that.
In the second novella, Homeward, Dr. Eusebio Lozora works as a pathologist in the basement of a hospital, on the last day of the year 1938. He’s catching up on work; writing up some autopsies. On that night, he is visited by two women. The first is his beloved wife, Maria, a relentless unorthodox theologian, much feared by the local priest. She has come to a realization about Jesus’ miracles, and can’t stop herself from stopping by his office and telling him about it. And it genuinely is an extraordinary new reading of the gospels. Heavily informed by the works of her other favorite author, Agatha Christie.
Who murdered Jesus of Nazareth? We all did.
It is not the guilt of the Jews that goes down through history, it is the guilt of us all. But how quick we are to forget that. We don’t like guilt, do we? We prefer to hide it, to forget it, to twist it and present it in a better light, to pass it on to others. And so, because of our aversion to guilt, we strain to remember who killed the victim in the gospels, as we strain to remember who killed the victim in an Agatha Christie mystery novel.
It’s very long, Maria’s exegesis, and takes up at least half of the novella. And then, she brings him a present; the newest Agatha Christie novel. And he is overcome with gratitude and love.
And then she leaves, and he is alone with his thoughts and his new novel. And then his second visitor knocks on his door, another woman named Maria, a good deal older than his wife, from the same village visited by Tomas in the first novella. And she has brought a body with her, and wants him to autopsy it. Her dearly beloved husband. And the autopsy becomes increasingly surreal and strange. And inside that body, curled up inside it, (and again, I apologize for the spoiler), he finds the deceased body of a chimpanzee.
In the third novella, Home, a Canadian politician, Peter Tovy, in the early 1980s, is incapacitated with grief when his wife dies. Barely able to function, he accepts a position on a junket to Oklahoma, where he visits an animal refuge. He becomes obsessed with a preternaturally self-possessed chimpanzee. On a whim, he buys it. He then turns his life upside down; quitting his job, selling his Canadian home (too cold for a chimp, he thinks), and moving to his ancestral home, a small village in the high mountains of Portugal. And in a very real sense, the chimpanzee becomes more than his companion, certainly a good deal more than a house pet. The chimpanzee becomes his guru. And when his grown son comes to visit, Odo, the ape, becomes beloved by them both.
I won’t give away the ending of the third novella, except to say that, narratively and thematically, it ends up, in an odd sort of way, tying all three stories together. Also, as strange as they are, these three stories have kept me up three nights in a row. So I blog, not so much to review this book, but to discharge it. It is, in any event, an extraordinary accomplishment.