I added Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal to my list after reading Fiction Fan’s glowing review of this book last year, but started my own reading of this author with The Life of Pi, and found this to be such an enthralling and unusual story that I still think about the plot and the characters a year after finishing the book.
The High Mountains of Portugal is beautifully written and is in much the same style as The Life of Pi, with strange, impossible things happening throughout. These crazy events seemed perfectly reasonable and believable while I was reading, though.
The story is made up of three quite distinct sections, named ‘Homeless’, ‘Homeward’ and ‘Home’, with each set in different times but overlapping geographically, with each story set at least in part in the High Mountains of Portugal. The central theme of each story is grieving. Each section answers or raises questions for the other sections of the story.
The first section, ‘Homeless’, starts in Lisbon in 1904 with Tomas, a young man who is grieving for his father, his lover and his son, all of whom died within a week of each other. From then on, unless he is running from a dangerous situation, Tomas walks backwards to show God and the world that he objects to everything he loves being taken from him.
Tomas works in a museum and becomes interested in a religious artifact which he believes would redefine history if found. Tomas’ uncle loans him an automobile, teaches him (more or less) to drive and sends him out on his quest.
The second section, ‘Homeward’, tells the story of a pathologist who conducts an autopsy on New Year’s Eve in 1938. The pathologist’s wife visits him at his work and tells him how stories about Jesus Christ were used to instill and spread faith, then likens Agatha Christie’s stories to reading stories about Jesus. (Reading this sentence back makes me wonder why this book made such good sense to me while I was reading, but I assure you, it did. I might have to read it again to understand precisely how this worked, though). Anyway, after the pathologist’s wife left him to finish his work, he carried out an autopsy on a man whose wife was insistent on learning from the autopsy how her husband had lived. The autopsy was extraordinary, completely surreal but also completely believable.
My favourite section was the last, called ‘Home’. ‘Home’ is set in the 1980s and tells of a politician grieving for his dead wife. He moves from Canada to the High Mountains of Portugal with a chimpanzee that he rescued from a research facility.
Readers who are more familiar with Bible stories will probably get more from this book than I did, and readers of Agatha Christie will no doubt enjoy the second section, ‘Homeward’, enormously.
I preferred The Life of Pi, but The High Mountains of Portugal is an extraordinary story.