Eusebio coughs a little. “You haven’t been sharing these insights with Father Cecilio, have you?”
Father Cecilio, is their local priest – and the subject of much eye-rolling on Maria’s part. In her presence the poor man always looks like the chicken in the coop that hasn’t laid enough eggs.
“What, and have us excommunicated? That dimwit is the very hammer of literalism that insults my faith. He’s as dumb as an ox.”
“But he means well,” Eusebio suggests smoothly.
“As does an ox.”
I will confess this is my first return to Yann Martel since the Life of Pi, and it came mostly down to the fact it was part of an offer in Waterstones and partly that it was based in Portugal. I read the blurb on the back but didn’t quite realise what it meant, as I was expecting a rolling novel but instead the High Mountains of Portugal is in fact in 3 parts, connected by a longing for home, and chimpanzees.
Up first is Tomas, a man crushed by grief who walks backwards. What is there to say about that? He has some good arguments for it as well.
In response Tomas has come up with good arguments in defence of his way of walking. Does it not make more sense to face the elements – the wind, the rain, the sun, the onslaught of insects, the glumness of strangers, the uncertainty of the future – with the shield that is the back of one’s head, the back of one’s jacket, the seat of one’s pants? These are our protection, our armour. They are made to withstand the vagaries of fate. Meanwhile, when one is walking backwards, ones more delicate parts-the face, the chest, the attractive details of ones clothing-are sheltered from the cruel world ahead and displayed only when and to whom one wants with a simple voluntary turn that shatters one’s anonymity.
By chance finds the diary of an old priest which leads him on a journey to the high mountains of Portugal (see what he did there), which, it turns out, aren’t very high at all.
Tomas travels there in one of Portugal’s first motor cars, something that causes him no small amount of grief and anxiety in itself and which Martel uses to create one of only jarring moments in the whole book, towards the end of part one.
In Father Ulisses, Tomas finds someone who he feels suffering mirrors his own. His journey, which he likens to the old priest, is where he tries to cope with his suffering, almost imitating the priest, giving up his job, and not washing as he reaches the end of his mission.
Maria Luisa Motaal Lozora, who is introduced in part two, is my favourite character in the book. Who puts forward the most compelling explanation of Jesus using Mrs Marple and Poirot, no mean feat, and who places Paul of Tarsus as the originator of Christianity after he solved the whodunnit of Jesus’s death. Her part is small though, as the second part focuses on her husband, Dr Eusebio Lozora and his experience with another Maria, Maria Dores Passos Castro and her husband, who she has packed in a suitcase and brought to the hospital. It is here that you feel the echoes of the Life of Pi, with the magical island and Martel’s game of see just how far he can push your imagination before it snaps. Mine didn’t and it is a poignant, if not fantastical look at losing a loved one.
Lastly we meet Peter Tovy who meets, and feels so instantly connected to Odo that he quits his job and moves to, can you believe it, the high mountains of Portugal. Nothing odd there at all, except maybe that Odo is a chimpanzee. He settles down in a sleepy town and lives carefree days with the excited if not perplexed community, much to the consternation of his son, but much to the delight of Odo.
The High Mountains reminded of Saramago, for location and manner of the storytelling. Tomas’ uncle the aloof aristocrat who Saramago would have subtly scorned, but this was less Saramago, the prose far too punctuated for the Portuguese master. Even so, I think I completely missed the moral of the story, and just soaked in Martel’s Portugal and it’s characters. Before I realised they were 3 separate yet interrelated stories, as part two carried on I kept thinking, this is all well and good Maria, but where is Tomas? As my brain caught up with my eyes it started to look for the themes that slide through the story. The three parts are tales of grief, about home and where to find it when your anchor has been ripped from you, yet all three are tender and shot through with some wonderful comic moments that make the High Mountains a place worth visiting, particularly if you have a chimpanzee.
“The horn. To warn, to alert, to remind, to coax, to complain.” His uncle squeezes the large rubber bulb affixed to the edge of the automobile, left of the steerage wheel. A tuba-like honk, with a little vibrato, erupts out of of the trumpet attached to the bulb. It is loud and attention-getting. Tomas has a vision of a rider on a horse carrying a goose under his arm like a bag pipe, squeezing the bird whenever danger is nigh, and cannot suppress a cough of laughter.