Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

Hardcover, 332 pages Published February 2nd 2016 by Spiegel & Grau

Somehow the word “novelist” doesn’t quite capture Yann Martel’s art. If I had to describe what he does, I might say he writes storybooks for adults. They often have talking animals and a kind of magical realism. He questions the ordinary, celebrates the fantastic. “Stories benefit the human mind.” We understand through stories, and each of us interprets a story differently.

Martel’s new novel drops us into a strange and distant land, at a time before any of us can claim first-hand knowledge. While he presents the facts of the case, we wonder what knowledge we are meant to bring to aid understanding. We listen, feeling homeless, unsure. He then leads us homeward, and in the last third we find ourselves quite at home and at peace…with a chimpanzee…in Portugal.

Religious belief, the bond animals and humans share, and big questions (“That’s the great, enduring challenge of our modern times, is it not, to marry faith and reason?”) are enduring themes in Martel’s work. We move through a century in one family’s history, collecting wisdom, only to have to succeeding generations keep the form but not the reason for an added custom, like walking backward in a state of grief, or the name and circumstance of one they worship as a “saint.” In three parts we have three married couples, all of whom have lost one lifelong partner, searching for meaning in their grief.
“Grief is a disease. We were riddled with its pockmarks, tormented by its fevers, broken by its blows. It ate at us like maggots, attacked us like lice—we scratched ourselves to the edge of madness. In the process we became as withered as crickets, as tired as old dogs.”

Martel’s stories are always filled with symbolism, some sitting on the surface and easy to grasp, and others discovered only after much contemplation. Real issues critical to our understanding of the world are treated with whimsy and humor, not scorn or disdain.

Martel makes the point that neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi makes in his memoir When Breath Becomes Air: that the goodness and blind faith required of us by religion is too hard to live up to on a daily basis. Reason is easier, both to comprehend and to use as a kind of measure of goodness. Neither faith nor reason is enough on its own: neither explains the world adequately. “Reason is blind. Reason, on its own, leads us nowhere, especially in the face of adversity.” And what of joy? Love? Reason doesn’t explain those, either.

Martel creates a character who suggests that an Agatha Christie murder mystery might combine the two: “the solution [is] stories that put reason on brilliant display while keeping one close to Jesus of Nazareth.” He compares the form of Agatha Christie novels to the gospels and hypothesizes that both are stories with a central murder mystery. The facts are laid out with great formality and ceremony, but no one ever seems to remember who the murderer is. Who killed Jesus? It is true that murder mysteries are compulsive reading material for adults, as are our bibles, whichever religion we examine.

Martel goes further. He takes the central imagic trope in the novel, an ancient carved wooden crucifix, and proposes us that the figure of Christ on the Cross might actually be a Chimp on the Cross--a crudely-carved naïve attempt at perspective, a statement on the development of man from ape, or a challenge that man was more pure, present, and godlike before he developed reason. That would be to say nothing of the literal: that humans have lorded over and crucified wild animals, even those so close in genealogy to ourselves, bringing us shame and not salvation.

Martel has no sacred cows. Reviewers have criticized him in the past for challenging the sanctity of well-protected myths and histories. I find Martel dazzling in his fearlessness, rigorous in his thinking, and deep in his conclusions. He is not dismissive of faith: he thinks it both interesting and necessary, providing a kind of useful moral structure. The formal ritual of organized religion does not impress him: “architectural modesty best suits the religious sentiment. Only song needs to soar in a church; anything fancier is human arrogance disguised as faith.”

There is something intoxicating and deeply reassuring about the final section of the book in which is recounted the story of Odo the chimp, rescued from the research lab in America’s southwest. Odo is old and wise enough to have developed a kind of culture and a rudimentary understanding of language. He can communicate, if not without misunderstandings. Odo seems to have no notion of past and future; he is all about the present. His human companion, Peter, discovers that he would prefer to become more Odo-like in his “profound simplicity of means and aims...members of [Peter’s] own species...are too noisy, too fractious, too arrogant, too unreliable. He much prefers the intense silence of Odo’s presence, his pensive slowness in whatever he does…”

A couple of last things: There is a profoundly affecting marriage consummation scene in this novel which gives readers a glimpse into what kind of man the author is, for who else could create such a scene? Both husband and wife are virgins; he twenty-one and she seventeen. Sex itself is all still a mystery, but they work it out together. The bride had never known desire, nor where hers lay, but her new husband searched for, and found, her hidden place and they lived and loved passionately ever after. Martel makes it beautiful, sexy, joyous, and absolutely right-sounding.

Was there ever an Iberian Rhinocerous? I doubt it, though he had me believing, just a little.

I’m a fan.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores


  1. "Real issues critical to our understanding of the world are treated with whimsy and humor, not scorn or disdain." An important recommendation to us all, especially if our culture rewards for the latter behaviors. Reminds me of a review of Edward Said that he never lowered himself to the "elitism of the intellectual sneer".

    1. Yes, I was going to add something to explain this remark but it slipped from my mind before I could get it down. Martel has a high-beam intellect and sometimes in person or in writing he can come across as though he has thought of all angles to an argument. But I happen to appreciate his courage and his common sense as well as his erudition. He can see that we have a long way to go to get the leaders we need and want.