A 1904 automobile. A bizarre autopsy. A chimpanzee. These otherwise random elements intersect in Yann Martel’s new novel, “The High Mountains of Portugal.”
Martel is best known as the author of “Life of Pi,” a story with a surreal plot that tests readers’ ability to suspend their disbelief and raises questions about truth and faith through simple and straightforward prose.
Though “The High Mountains of Portugal” isn’t as literarily groundbreaking, it also includes these elements in a unique story set over the course of almost a century.
The first section, set in 1904, focuses on the aftermath of loss and the quest for an unlikely source of closure. After Tomás loses his lover, son and father in the same week, he grows angry with God and literally turns his back on the world by walking backward. He journeys to the high mountains of Portugal in search of a crucifix that he believes will restore his faith, but runs into a terrible tragedy instead.
The second section is most reminiscent of a Martel narrative. On New Year’s Eve, Dr. Lozora, a pathologist with a fascination for murder mystery novels, is visited in his office by his beloved wife. Though the story seems straightforward at first, the events of the night unfold astonishingly, ultimately connecting his story to Tomás’.
The final section features another aspect common in Martel’s novels — the deep bond between a human and an animal. Canadian senator Peter longs for a change after his wife’s death. While visiting a chimpanzee sanctuary, he meets Odo, a chimpanzee with whom he instantly connects. Peter and Odo move to Portugal to start a new life in rural simplicity. The story takes readers back to the high mountains, tying all three parts together and concluding Tomás’s journey.
The most compelling parts of the novel are when the characters reflect on the depth of their complicated relationships, creating a story that extends beyond a simple quest. Martel is skilled at writing about relationships in all their forms — between humans, humans and animals and living beings and the divine.
Martel came to Peace United Church in Santa Cruz on Monday evening to discuss his newest novel for an event hosted by Bookshop Santa Cruz. City on a Hill Press interviewed Martel about “The High Mountains of Portugal,” discussing his characters’ relationships with animals, landscapes, faith and technology.
On the relationship between landscapes and stories
“There is a region in northeastern Portugal called Trás-os-Montes, which means ‘beyond or behind the mountains’ — and there are no mountains there. So first of all, there’s the idea of positing mountains where there are no mountains and then being more concerned about what’s beyond them.”
Martel said he traveled to this region in Portugal and was intrigued by the name. “Why would you call a place mountainous when there are no mountains? I realized that geography is a form of storytelling. You name landscapes and start weaving a narrative.”
He said the mountains always stayed in his memory because of their name. “I decided to call [the novel] “The High Mountains of Portugal” because they’re not real mountains, they’re mountains in your mind — mountains you have to scale in your mind, in your heart and in your imagination.”
On his characters’ relationships with faith
Martel said that “The High Mountains of Portugal” is a broad allegory for the life of Jesus. He wanted to explore religion through a literary perspective rather than a faith-based one.
“I wanted to look at three different relationships with faith. In part one, Tomás is in rebellion — he has no faith. He’s reacted to loss by giving up faith. In part two, Dr. Lozora has faith but his faith is sorely tested. It’s easy to have faith when you’re young, healthy and wealthy, but what happens when your wife dies? In part three, I wanted someone who would be living with the object of his faith. The chimpanzee throughout is the symbol for Christ. And it doesn’t matter what religion, it could be the symbol for Buddha, it could be the symbol for Karl Marx or the Denver Broncos. Just something you have faith in. In part three, I posited someone who actually lives with a faith object, who’s actually living with the Denver Broncos, or living with Jesus.”
On the relationship between humans and chimpanzees
Martel chose to use chimpanzees in new his novel because he wanted an animal close to humans. “We share 97 percent of our genetic material with chimpanzees. We parted ways only a few million years ago.”
He talked about how the absence of animals in the Christian west throughout history, due to increasing urbanization and viewing animals as automaton with no souls or emotions.
“It took Darwin with his theory of evolution to finally bring animals close to us. He said, ‘You know what, chimps are actually just distant cousins of yours, and you all have a common ancestor. So animals that you’ve downgraded to just a step above mud are in fact related to you,’” Martel explained. “I wanted an animal that symbolized that proximity. The great ape, the chimpanzee, was the best one.”
On his characters’ relationships with technology
“In the order of the stories, I was sort of reversing the order of things. The third story, despite dating closer in proximity to our time, I wanted to have an older, more primeval feel. The senator lives with no electricity, no hot water, no phone. I wanted it to be sort of primitive and simple. I wanted simplicity to harken back to an earlier time, as with the disciples and Jesus.”
Martel talks about how technology is choking up people’s lives, but they still choose to use it.
“I wanted a man who was also overwhelmed by technology and who can’t think straight in part because of it. We live in a very technologically-driven, stressed, angry time. I wanted to reflect that with a man overwhelmed by a car.”
On which relationship in his novels was most challenging to write overall
“My first novel [“Self”] is a story about a man who, while traveling to Portugal on his 18th birthday, turns into a woman. Just metamorphosizes, like magic realism. He’s a woman for seven years, and then he becomes a man again as a result of a rape. In changing sex, his sexual orientation slowly changes. When he’s a young man, he’s heterosexual. Then he turns into a woman, but in his mind he’s still a man who’s initially still attracted to women. On the outside, it looks like she’s a lesbian, but in her mind, because she used to be a man, she’s heterosexual still.
Slowly, she starts drifting toward being attracted to men. The first time she kisses a man, the first thing that pops into her head is, ‘I’m gay’ even though on the outside she’s just a girl with a boy. It was interesting navigating those transitions, closing my eyes and imagining myself in the skin of the other — not only the sexual other, but the sexual orientation other. Navigating how that worked was fascinating.”