cover image The High Mountains of Portugal

The High Mountains of Portugal

Yann Martel. Random/Spiegel & Grau, $27 (352p) ISBN 978-0-8129-9717-0

An Iberian rhinoceros, two chimpanzees, three dead wives, and two dead toddlers all figure in this highly imaginative novel. Martel’s narrative wizardry connects three novellas set seven decades apart in the eponymous region of Portugal. In the first section, titled “Homeless” and set in 1904, Tomás Lobo, a young resident of Lisbon whose wife and son have died, begins to walk backward “to face the uncertainty of the future,” since everything he cherished in life has been taken away. Though he has lost his religious faith, he vows to find a “strange and marvelous” crucifix that resembles a chimpanzee in a church in the tiny village of Tuizelo. His quest goes awry in highly comic ways: an episode that finds him naked in a meadow rubbing lice powder over his body rivals the hilarious meerkat scene in Martel’s Life of Pi. Characters from Tuizelo figure in the second section, “Homeward,” set in 1938. A pathologist receives a visit from his dead wife and later discovers a dead chimpanzee curled in the body of a man on whom he does an autopsy. Martel handles this improbable scene with convincing magical realism. “Home,” the third section, is set in 1981 Canada, where a politician mourning his dead wife impulsively buys a chimpanzee called Odo and travels to Tuizelo, where he was born. His grief is assuaged and his faith is restored by the ancient crucifix and the simple pleasures of country life. Martel is in a class by himself in acknowledging the tragic vicissitudes of life while celebrating wildly ridiculous contretemps that bring levity to the mystery of existence. (Feb.)