Pack your bags: Fifteen years after “The Life of Pi,” Yann Martel is taking us on another long journey. Fans of his Man Booker Prize-winning novel will recognize familiar themes from that seafaring phenomenon, but the itinerary in this imaginative new book is entirely fresh.
In fact, “The High Mountains of Portugal” is actually a set of three delicately connected novellas that take place decades apart. With Martel’s signature mixture of humor and pathos, these three stories explore the rugged terrain of grief. But they also contain the author’s reflections on the connection between storytelling and faith.
The first part, “Homeless,” is the longest and the most itinerant. It opens in Lisbon in 1904, a place and time cast in old-world elegance. A young man named Tomás has recently lost his son, his lover and his father, a trifecta of death that’s left him so turned around by sorrow that he walks backward. “Some people never laugh again. Others take to drink,” Martel writes. “Walking backwards, his back to the world, his back to God, he is not grieving. He is objecting. Because when everything cherished by you in life has been taken away, what else is there to do but object?”
The gaping maw of Tomás’s desolation would seem to swallow the story whole, but Martel constantly pushes back with light, arch humor: “Should one trip,” he writes, “what safer way to do so than backwards, the cushioned buttocks blunting one’s fall?” That comedy grows broader when Tomás borrows an automobile from his wealthy uncle. He has no idea how to drive, and as he jerks and careens across Portugal — usually in first gear — he’s an object of fascination and assault.
This slapstick comedy, which, frankly, runs on too long, is punctuated by the grim nature of Tomás’s quest. He’s inspired by the diary of a 17th-century priest who ministered to the slaves in Portuguese Angola. Tomás’s grief resonates with the horror of that hellhole, and his imagination is captured by an iconoclastic crucifix that the priest created and must have left somewhere in Portugal. As his erratic road trip grows more desperate and “the days blur into a fog of time,” Tomás begins to glow with madness, determined to find that old crucifix and strike back at God. Although some readers will grow impatient with Martel’s circuitous patter, when the conclusion arrives, the whole story snaps into focus for a vision of despair that’s almost unbearably poignant.
That same tonal shift takes place again in the second story, “Homeward,” but it’s a wholly different kind of tale. Instead of driving across Portugal for days, we’re trapped for a single strange night in the office of Dr. Lozora, a pathologist in Braganca, Portugal, in the late 1930s. Dr. Lozora’s beloved wife interrupts him during an autopsy to explain her curious theory about the connection between the Gospels and Agatha Christie.
“Humour and religion do not mix well,” she admits to her husband, but they’re well mixed in this story, which is largely a dissertation on the allegorical structure of Jesus’s life. “Why,” she asks, “would Jesus speak in parables? Why would he both tell stories and let himself be presented through stories? Why would Truth use the tools of fiction?” This, of course, is a question close to the heart of Martel’s own work. But the doctor’s wife wryly compares Jesus’s crucifixion to one of Hercule Poirot’s murder mysteries, suggesting that the real meaning of the Gospels — a marrying of reason and faith — is found only in literary interpretation. And her radically anti-historical consideration of Jesus is combined with a powerful testament to the efficacy of allegories.
This might all sound a bit pedantic — it almost is — but it quickly turns out to be a kind of training session for us to read about the good doctor’s second guest that evening. Martel ever-so-gently nudges the story from realism to surrealism, from the antiseptic office of a pathologist to the fecund universe of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Before we know it, Dr. Lozora finds himself folded into a bizarre allegory of sorrow that’s impossibly beautiful and sad.
One of the peripheral pleasures of this book, and this section in particular, is the way it demonstrates that Martel can handle symbolic material far more effectively than in his 2010 novel, “Beatrice and Virgil.” That ill-conceived story conflated cute humor and stuffed animals for a cringe-inducing allegory about the Holocaust. In “The High Mountains of Portugal,” he has recalibrated the fragile balance of his tones and provided a far more evocative exploration of our ability to persist — and even thrive — in a world of sorrow.
That theme receives its most effective treatment in the final novella called “Home,” which involves a Canadian politician who loses his wife. Lethargic with grief and an embarrassment to his colleagues, Sen. Peter Tovy agrees to take a junket to a chimp refuge in Oklahoma, just to get him out of Parliament for a few days. But there, in a laboratory filled with screaming apes, he connects with a most-surprising new friend.
The story that develops remains tinged with sadness, but it gradually inflates with a strange species of mirth. Martel’s writing has never been more charming, a rich mixture of sweetness that’s not cloying and tragedy that’s not melodramatic. When Peter Tovy’s life is finally knitted into the two previous stories, “The High Mountains of Portugal” attains an altitude from which we can see something quietly miraculous.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him @RonCharles.
On Feb. 12 at 7 p.m., Yann Martel will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C.
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By Yann Martel
Spiegel & Grau. 332 pp. $27