Martel’s Mountains


In The High Mountains of Portugal (Knopf), Yann Martel returns to magic realism in three interwoven stories about lost love and journeys taken to reclaim the past. In 1904, Tomás, grieving for his dead lover, son and father, sets out in a car he doesn’t know how to drive to find a long-lost religious artifact in rural Portugal. Three decades later, a woman from the same rural village takes her husband’s corpse to Dr. Lozora, a pathologist, in the middle of the night, where an autopsy reveals a surprise as to how the man lived. Fifty years after that, a Canadian senator named Peter Tovy adopts a chimpanzee and moves to the Portuguese mountains after the death of his wife. In each of these stories, grief manifests itself in the loss of language: Tomás struggles to learn the mechanical tongue of the automobile; Dr. Lozora fails to communicate the medical procedure of the autopsy and Peter faces the double language barrier of Portuguese and Odo the chimpanzee. All three must turn away from the past to discover a new way of life. As in his previous novels, Martel uses animals to ponder larger topics, this time Christianity, where the chimpanzee represents, by turns, a crucified Christ, rebirth and God itself. I enjoyed this novel more than I was expecting (like others, I was wary after Beatrice and Virgil): the elements of magic realism are used well, most memorably in the story of Dr. Lozora. While there are stronger religious metaphors in this book, my favourite is the extended comparison of Jesus’s life to an Agatha Christie murder mystery. This is a novel that has grown in my mind since I finished it, walking its way backwards into the peaks of my thoughts.  

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Kelsea O’Connor is contributing editor to Geist. She lives in New Westminster.


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