The High Mountains of Portugal
Yann Martel (Knopf Canada 2016) 332 pages, cover price n/a
Are you aware of the story of Dürer's Rhinceros? If not, it bears telling for I am damn sure Yann Martel knows it and knows it well. In 1515, the Sultan of Cambay sent the gift of a rhinoceros to King Manuel I of Portugal acknowledging the good relations between them. In a staged battle designed to test Pliny the Elder's testament that rhinos and elephants are mortal enemies, the rhinoceros frightened away the King's elephant without a single blow, thus rather disappointing the gathered crowd. Perhaps because of that lack of entertainment value – or more prosaically to heal some diplomatic wounds with Rome – in an early demonstration of re-gifting the King had the poor rhino, wearing a collare of green velvet decorated with flowers, packed aboard ship and sent to the Medici Pope Leo X as a present. Unfortunately, a storm wrecked the ship and the shackled rhinoceros drowned. Its carcass however was recovered, the hide was returned to Lisbon where it was stuffed and mounted, then sent back to Rome. What happened after that to this considerable feat of taxidermy is unknown, except we do know that several observers sketched it and described it in letters. Dürer saw one of those letters and sketches and so make his own woodcut, a third-hand interpretation of the original beast; third-hand in that first there was the living animal, then the taxidermy (or first artistic rendering), and third what artists made of the art. Thus ends that story.
Martel must have been profoundly moved by this woodcut as its backstory echoes through most of his fiction. Shipwrecks and captured animals you will know from The Life of Pi and taxidermy runs through the squirmingly weird Beatrice & Virgil. Toss in some religious philosophy and general observations on the relationship between man and beast blended with an awareness that all stories are like Heisenberg's uncertainty principle wherein one can know where something is or its momentum but never both, and all that – deep breath – is what we can call Martel-land. And so we return there for The High Mountains of Portugal.
The novel is divided into three parts, titled Homeless, Homeward and Home. In the first, a young museum clerk sets out in an early automobile trying to find a carved crucifix somewhere in a small church in northeast Portugal. The second third is a very strange story of a pathologist who late at night is brought the body of an elderly man by his widow. Lastly, a widowed Canadian Senator returns to his birth village in Portugal with his newly-adopted chimpanzee. As you do.
These three stories are connected by a sense of loss in each. All the major characters have lost their partner and in turn become lost themselves. The first and third stories have their
surviving widowers become restless travelers, going on long car trips in a quest for; well they're not quite sure what their specific goal is or what it will look or feel like once achieved, but they know they need to find it. As for the middle story, the pathologist seems to find his only solace in sleep, in the world of dreams where his wife still lives; a vision quest as in Native American spiritualism.
Tonally, The High Mountains of Portugal runs out all the party pieces. As you might surmise from the above, there is all the heartache of the loving soul abandoned by its mate. There is also high comedy, something I rather wish Martel would indulge in more often. In the first section there are some marvelous set-pieces where the young widower wrestles with that 1904 automobile; it seeming strange initially that he refers to it as 'the machine' until we remember that the convention of calling it a car or an auto hadn't been invented yet. As well, Martel's obsession with the Grand Guignol of taxidermy and general weirdness is indulged in the middle third.
Another connecting element, in the second and third stories, are quite lengthy diversions into the work of Agatha Christie. God knows I loved the work of the morbid old bird, but I do find it fascinating that Martel, a truly literary writer if ever one existed, chooses to tribute such a completely traditional popular novelist. I don't know what his motivation was and of course that has nothing at all to do with a one's enjoyment of his novel, but I suspect it falls somewhere between throwing in an object of familiarity to give the reader a smile and a defiant up yours to his critics by effectively saying, 'Look you lot, I understand linear structures as well as anyone, I just don't choose to follow that path.'
Depending on your taste in such things, The High Mountains of Portugal is either spiritually profound or gimmicky as all hell. There is a great palaver in the middle third about all stories really being allegories, certain characters choose to walk backwards (moving forward while looking back, geddit?) and a rhinoceros – hello Dürer – appears just in time for curtain call. As for me, I greatly enjoyed the description of living with a chimpanzee. The chimp's name is Odo, like the character from television's Deep Space Nine. You remember Odo don't you? He was the shape-shifter who would rearrange his molecules so as to appear in the guise that sufficed the needs of his allies at the moment. Yann Martel is a shape-shifter of words and The High Mountains of Portugal is his latest form.
Be seeing you.