This novel is part quest, part philosophy, all allegory; perhaps the broadest insight is into the myriad ways grief and love are manifested and managed.
We begin with Tomas, in Lisbon in the early 20th century. Tomas has lost both the woman he loved, and his young son, to fatal illnesses. He is grieving, and the way in which he shows his loss is by always walking backwards – since looking forward seems to be fruitless. He needs something to distract him, and finds a reference in an old diary (which he has stolen from his employer) to an “artefact” which was created by the diary’s owner, Father Ulisses, in the 17th century. After considerable sleuthing and soul-searching, he decides that it must be in a church in the high mountains of Portugal. So, fortunate in having a wealthy uncle with a fleet of automobiles, he is able to borrow a car and after about half an hour’s instruction sets out on his quest. Mercifully, he drives forwards! His wanderings are most amusing, particularly as many of the villages he passes through have never seen a motorcar and are either terrified or horrified, but rarely fascinated.
He fetches up in a village called Tuizelo, and while his quest is successful, he also comes to terms with his grief through self-realisation and faith.
The second part of the story, in Braganca, revolves around a pathologist and his wife, and amateur theologian. They share a love of Agatha Christie novels, and the wife manages to create a whole theory of the parables of Christ explained through the oeuvre of Agatha Christie. But that is not the only oddity of this part of the story. One of the pathologist’s clients turns up with her dead husband in a suitcase – I shan’t give more away, but it’s the most bizarre piece of writing I have read in a long long time. Of course there is a connection to the village of Tuizelo.
Part three sees an Canadian politician, with Portuguese ancestry, recently widowed, adopting an ape and heading for – you guessed it – the high mountains of Portugal. He ends up in Tuizelo, the same town in which Tomas fetched up.
I don’t wish to spoil the story any further. However I did find myself engaged, revolted, and bewildered much of the time. I THINK I would recommend it if you have read and enjoyed Yann Martel before. However on the strength of this book, I won’t be going to the same author again.
Reviewed by Sue Esterman
The High Mountains of Portugal
by Yann Martel
Published by Text Publishing