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Review: The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

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.

martelIn 1904, Tomas, grieving for his dead lover and son, sets out in a car he doesn’t know how to drive to find a long-lost religious artefact in rural Portugal. Three decades later, a woman from the same rural village brings her husband’s corpse to a pathologist in the middle of the night, where his autopsy reveals a surprising answer to how the man lived. Fifty years after that, Canadian Senator Peter adopts a chimpanzee and moves to the Portuguese mountains after the death of his wife.

In each of these stories, grief manifests in the loss of language: Tomas 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 alternatively represents a crucified Christ, rebirth, and God itself.

I enjoyed this novel more than I was expecting (I, too, was wary after Beatrice and Virgil), and the elements of magic realism are used well, most memorably in the story of Dr. Lozora. While there were stronger religious metaphors present in this book, my favourite had to be the extended comparison of Jesus’s life to an Agatha Christie murder mystery. This novel is one that has grown in my mind since I’ve finished it, walking its way backwards into the peaks of my thoughts.

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This review first appeared in Geist 100.

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