Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
If you haven’t read Life of Pi by Yann Martel you have at a minimum heard of it or watched the film, right? That was a great book, full of fancy and food for thought and it forced the reader to suspend disbelief. The High Mountains of Portugal is by the same author. It’s set in Portugal in 3 parts, 1904, 1938 and 1981.
The first part shares in common with Life of Pi a mostly solitary journey with plenty of self reflection. It follows Tomás on a quest to find a religious art piece, created by a Portuguese priest in a slave colony on the African island San Tomé. Tomás is grieving the deaths of his wife, son and father and his faith in God is severely shaken. He discovers the diary of the priest and finds solace in the gradual degradation of the priest’s sanity and faith as fever and the unrelenting flow of new slaves wears him down. Tomás is a scholarly, city boy who doesn’t understand anything except antiquities. His uncle is extremely wealthy and lends Tomás a car to drive into the high mountains of Portugal on his quest. It’s one of the first cars in Portugal and the country is unfamiliar and unsuited to these loud, obnoxious vehicles.
When Tomás’s uncle offers him the use of his 4 cylinder Renault car he sings the praises of the car over horse drawn carriages:
Those thirty horses have been compressed into a metal box fitted between these front wheels. The performance! The economy! … where in the automobile is the offal that so offends us with the horse? There is none, only a puff of smoke that vanishes in the air. An automobile is as harmless as a cigarette.
Tomás doesn’t know the first thing about automobiles, internal combustion engines or navigation. His uncle is very solicitous and puts a huge amount of effort into packing for and provisioning Tomás with everything that he will need for his journey. After a short driving lesson and armed with the manual and a French to Portuguese dictionary, Tomás is sent on his way.
As you can imagine he has many misadventures, like an awful incident with a malicious stage coach driver who tries to run him off the road then damages the roof of the car. The car is beaten by an angry villager who thought Tomás had made fun of her son. Tomás is bedeviled by head and body lice and drives off the road trying to go around a city to avoid having to drive through it. He gets lost in a forest and stops against a tree to scratch his crazily itching body all over until he makes himself bleed. He then tries to treat his lice with petrol and a powder for treating lice on horses. To better see what he’s doing he puts his candle in the top of a petrol bottle and as you can imagine sets fire not only to the interior of the car but also his body. When he finally has put out the fires he finds that he is parked against a tree and can’t drive forwards. It doesn’t occur to him to try to roll the car backwards so instead he chops the tree down. He cuts too high and fails to chop through the trunk but climbs into the tree to topple it instead and the root ball pulls out of the ground. He is rescued by a savvy peasant who tells him to put the car in neutral and together they push the car backwards. The peasant says:
Pity about the tree… (it was) by the looks of it, two to three hundred years old. A good one, producing plenty of olives.
Eventually Tomás, debilitated to the point of adject despair limps into a village, visits the village church and gazes upon the crucifix created by the Portuguese priest on San Tomé.
The second part is full of fancy and requires an open mind on the part of the reader. Ostensibly it’s about Eusebio, a pathologist who on New Year’s Eve is working late into the night on autopsy reports when his wife visits and delivers a long soliloquy on the similarities between the allegorical nature of the Christian gospels and Agatha Christie murder mysteries (she was quite convincing, what did you think?). Shortly after she leaves an old peasant from the high mountains of Portugal (the woman that showed Tomás into the church in the village 35 years beforehand) arrives at his office with a mysterious suitcase and demands that he perform an autopsy on her husband so that she can discover how he lived. Things become very strange and I won’t give away here what happens next.
The final section of the book follows a Canadian senator, Peter, who is mourning the death of his wife and estrangement of his son’s family. He takes a work trip to the USA and visits a chimpanzee research centre. He is appalled by the living conditions of the chimpanzees and unexpectedly bonds with one wonderful chimpanzee named Odo. He spontaneously offers to buy Odo, returns to Canada, packs up his life, picks up Odo and flies with him to Portugal. They drive a similar route to what Tomás took 87 years earlier to the small village where he visited the church with the interesting crucifix. Peter can barely speak any Portuguese but he manages to negotiate to rent a house in the village. He and Odo settle into a comfortable routine and enjoy living together. Peter reflects on how his perspective has changed from being a busy senator to living in a remote village with a chimpanzee
Peter has learned the difficult animal skill of doing nothing. He’s learned to unshackle himself from the race of time and contemplate time itself. As far as he can tell, that’s what Odo spends most of his time doing: being in time, like one sits by a river, watching the water go by. It’s a lesson hard learned, just to sit there and be. At first he yearned for distractions. He would absent himself in memories, replaying the same old movies in his head, fretting over regrets, yearning for last happiness. But he’s getting better at being in a state of illuminated, sitting-by-a-river repose.
The central themes of the book are love, death and grief. There’s an interesting thread of the crucifix and chimpanzees that flows through all three sections. It’s nice to have a return to unexpected large animals as important characters, like in Life of Pi. I really enjoyed reading this part quest, part fantasy, part fable. The writing is tender and I could feel the love and grief of each of the central characters. Thank you Yann Martel.
What did you think of this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts about it and Martel’s other books. Here are a couple of reviews that you may enjoy reading too: