This novel has received rave reviews, but mine is not one of those. Perhaps I’m just not intelligent enough to fathom its depths.
The book is actually three linked novellas, though the links are sometimes rather tenuous. In the first part set in 1904, Tomás is a grieving young man who takes a road trip to the high mountains of Portugal to search for a religious relic. In the second part set in 1938, a pathologist, Dr. Lozora, listens to a long monologue and then performs an autopsy at the request of Maria Castro, a widow from the high mountains of Portugal, an autopsy which reveals how her husband lived. The last part is about a Canadian senator, Peter Tovy, who moves to his ancestral home in the high mountains of Portugal and brings with him a chimpanzee named Odo.
Each of the three stories has sections that are ever so tedious. Throughout Tomás’ story, there is detailed information about the driving of one of the first automobiles in the country. Dr. Lozora has a lengthy conversation about the parallels between storytelling, especially the mysteries of Agatha Christie, and religious scripture. And Peter’s story includes painstaking detail about his developing relationship with Odo.
What is the book about? Most obviously, it is about death and how the living survive the loss of a great love. All three protagonists are widowers who struggle with life after the deaths of their wives. Tomás has lost his father, wife and son and he decides to thereafter walk backwards: “in walking backwards, his back to the world, his back to God, he is not grieving. He is objecting. Because when everything cherished by you in life has been taken away, what else is there to do but object” (12)? He sets out to find an unusual religious artifact which Tomás describes as impressive: “’People will stare at it, their mouths open. It will cause an uproar. With this object I’ll give God His comeuppance for what He did to the ones I love’” (84). Dr. Lozora loses himself in his work and in conversations with a ghost. Peter, on a whim, rescues a chimpanzee and then realizes he needs to relocate to “a quiet spot, with lots of space and few people” so he returns to his ancestral homeland in rural Portugal with his new companion.
Martel, when asked what the book is about, replied, “’It's what I call a literary examination of faith. It's in three parts, and each one has a different emotional tone. So if you really want to simplify, part one is atheism, part two is agnostism, part three is belief’” (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/yann-martel-high-mountains-portugal-discussion-1.3436022). In keeping with this explanation, it is noteworthy that the first part is entitled “Homeless”; the second, “Homeward”; and the third, “Home”. Since Peter, in the third story, is the one who most closely heals his broken heart and achieves a sense of contentment, Martel’s suggestion seems to be that man needs to return to nature and believe in the interconnectedness between man and animals and maybe even the superiority of animals.
In Life of Pi, a Bengal tiger is a major character; in this novel, it’s a chimpanzee. Odo is a major character in the last story, but chimpanzees are mentioned in crucial events in the other stories as well. (Unfortunately, Tomás’ epiphany about “risen apes” (131) made me think of Planet of the Apes.) Martel’s message seems to be that we must stop thinking of ourselves as superior to animals; we too are animals, “random animals” (131) as Tomás identifies, and we must embrace animals as part of our lives, as Maria Castro’s arms “encircle both the chimpanzee and the bear cub” (209), and we must, like Peter, take the “movement down to Odo’s so-called lower status” and learn “the difficult animal skill of doing nothing . . . to unshackle himself from the race of time and contemplate time itself. . . . being in a state of illuminated, sitting-by-the-river repose” (300). Martel has spoken of animals possessing echoes of the divine in their ability to live in the present moment, and Peter speaks of being “touched by the grace of the ape, and there’s no going back to being a plain human being” (300). In that respect, salvation is indeed found in the depiction of Christ that Tomás seeks.
Of course, I could be totally wrong. There is a great deal of ambiguity and quirkiness so I often felt lost searching for significance and trying to find thematic links. If I re-read the novel, I would perhaps understand the book better, but I didn’t enjoy the book enough to want to read it a second time. I like thought-provoking literary fiction, but this book is too vague, disjointed and mystifying for my taste. There are touches of humour, especially in the first section, but they don’t make up for the boring bits.