In 1515, the Sultan of Cambay sent the gift of a rhinoceros to King Manuel I of Portugal acknowledging the good relations between them. In a staged battle designed to test Pliny the Elder’s testament that rhinos and elephants are mortal enemies, the rhinoceros frightened away the King’s elephant without a single blow, thus disappointing the gathered crowd. Perhaps because of that lack of entertainment value – or more prosaically to heal some diplomatic wounds with Rome – in an early demonstration of re-gifting the King had the poor rhino sent by ship to the Medici Pope Leo X as a present. Unfortunately, a storm wrecked the ship and the shackled rhinoceros drowned. Its carcass, however, was recovered, and the hide was returned to Lisbon where it was stuffed and mounted, then sent back to Rome. What happened after that to this considerable feat of taxidermy is unknown, except we do know that several observers sketched it and described it in letters. Dürer saw one of those letters and sketches and so made his own woodcut, a third-hand interpretation of the original beast.
At some point in his life, Yann Martel must have been profoundly moved by this woodcut as its backstory echoes through most of his fiction. Shipwrecks and captured animals you will know from The Life of Pi and taxidermy runs through the squirmingly weird Beatrice & Virgil. Toss in some religious philosophy and general observations on the relationship between man and beast, blended with an awareness that all stories are like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle wherein one can know where something is or its momentum but never both, and all that – deep breath – is what we can call Martel-land. And so we return there for The High Mountains of Portugal.
The novel is one story told in three three parts, titled Homeless, Homeward and Home. In the first, Tomás, a young museum clerk, sets out in an early automobile trying to find a carved crucifix somewhere in a small church in northeast Portugal. The second third is a very strange story of a pathologist who late at night is brought the body of an elderly man by his widow. Lastly, Peter Tovy, a widowed Canadian Senator, returns to his birth village in Portugal with his newly-adopted chimpanzee. As you do.
These three stories are connected by a sense of loss in each. All the major characters have lost their partner and in turn become lost themselves. The first and third stories have their surviving widowers become restless travellers, going on long car trips in a quest for; well they’re not quite sure what their specific goal is or what it will look or feel like once achieved, but they know they need to find it. As for the middle story, the pathologist seems to find his only solace in sleep, in the world of dreams where his wife still lives.
Tonally, The High Mountains of Portugal runs out all the party pieces. As you might surmise from the above, there is all the heartache of the loving soul abandoned by its mate. There is also high comedy, something I rather wish Martel would indulge in more often. In the first section there are some marvellous set-pieces where the young widower wrestles with that 1904 automobile; it seeming strange initially that he refers to it as “the machine” until we remember that the convention of calling it a car or an auto hadn’t been invented yet. As well, Martel’s obsession with the Grand Guignol of taxidermy and general weirdness is indulged in the middle third.
Depending on your taste in such things, The High Mountains of Portugal is either spiritually profound or gimmicky as all hell. There is a great palaver in the middle third about all stories really being allegories, certain characters choose to walk backwards (moving forward while looking back, geddit?) and a rhinoceros appears just in time for curtain call. As for me, I greatly enjoyed the description of living with a chimpanzee. The chimp’s name is Odo, like the character from television’s “Deep Space Nine.” You remember Odo don’t you? He was the shape-shifter who would rearrange his molecules so as to appear in the guise that sufficed the needs of his allies at the moment. Yann Martel is a shape-shifter of words and The High Mountains of Portugal is his latest form.
Hubert O’Hearn now lives in a small village in Mayo, Ireland, a country he’s wanted to be in since he was ten and growing up in Thunder Bay. He finally got there in 2012. Of his new home, he writes, “It’s a much nicer way of life to be honest. And I certainly don’t miss three feet of snow lasting for months.”
Formerly the Literary Editor of the Herald de Paris, he is currently the Editor-in-Chief of Four Freedom Publishing. Author, reviewer, publisher and host of an interview podcast called “Thoughts Comments Opinions” for San Diego Book Review , he can be found on Twitter as @BTBReviews. His most recent book is The Friendly World of the Border Collie.
- Yann Martel talks about why animals are central to his work on CBC Ottawa.
- Yann Martel taught “Meeting the Other: the Animal in Western Literature,” at the Freie Universität Berlin.
- A rare rhinoceros recently spotted, according to the Guardian’s Adam Vaughn on March 22, “Sumatran rhino sighted in Indonesian Borneo for first time in 40 years.”
- Sara Crowne takes up the animal theme in her excellent review in the Telegraph, “Yann Martel’s New Novel: ‘Life of Pi’ but with chimpanzees.”
- More on Hubert O’Hearne and his work can be found at the site Do Angels Breathe.
- A slightly longer version of this review is available at O’Hearne’s reviewing site.