Friday, April 22, 2016

Historical Fiction: The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

Like many readers, I was first introduced to the writing of Yann Martel through his international best-seller Life of Pi, though he had written and published a few things before that. And despite the disappointment that was Beatrice and Virgil, I decided to pick up his latest work, The High Mountains of Portugal.

The Situation: In the first section, titled "Homeless," Tomas heads out to the High Mountains of Portugal on a personal quest to find an artifact created by Father Ulisses in the year of 1904. Using Father Ulisses' diary as a guide, Tomas heads out on the adventure with his rich uncle's car, although automobiles have not yet achieved mainstream use. In the second section, titled "Homeward," it is 1939 and Dr. Lozora is once again up late in his office. After a day of autopsies and a visit from his wife, the doctor receives a late night visit from a woman who wants an immediate autopsy on her husband, whose body she has packed in the suitcase she is carrying with her. The procedure will turn out to be one of the strangest autopsies he has ever done. And in the early 1980s, in the section titled "Home," Peter Tovy will leave everything behind and move to the High Mountains of Portugal with his newly purchased ape, Odo. His new life will bring all three stories to full circle and connect all three men in a strange and somber way.

The Problem: While the car Tomas drives is a marvel not only to himself, but also to everyone who sees him along the way, his lack of experience in driving and maintaining it only adds stress to his trip. And while reaching a town can allow him to buy supplies and food, it also means being bothered by curious onlookers. Meanwhile, his trip takes longer than he thought, and what he finds may not be what he was hoping for. In 1939, not only is the late-night autopsy the strangest Dr. Lozora has ever done, but it reveals some issues going on in his personal life. And for Peter Tovy, living in a foreign country, where he does not really know the language, and with an ape that was a former science experiment, is not as complicated as it would seem. He is able to sell his car; get rid of most of his belongings; get himself and Odo to the High Mountains of Portugal; secure a home, a maid, and weekly supply deliveries; and even relieve the fears that the townspeople may have of the large ape. But every once in awhile, a sudden fear will grip him, usually while reviewing his situation honestly, and the fact that he now lives with a very dangerous animal that could decide to turn on him at any moment.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that I chose to place under historical fiction, although it eventually moves forward as far as the early 1980s. The High Mountains of Portugal is told through three different stories and focuses on three different men, each of which has lost the woman they love, and two of which have lost their only child. Eventually all three stories are revealed to be connected, but not all of them take place in the High Mountains of Portugal. Both Tomas and Peter end up traveling there, but Dr. Lozora only meets the woman from there who wants the autopsy of her husband. There is some discussion of religion, Portuguese people and culture, travel, apes, and even Agatha Christie novels. Much like Martel's other novels, there seems to be an importance placed on the overall journey, and not just the destination. While all three men would love to simply have the trip go as quickly as possible, they are almost forced to take a longer journey, or go through a sort of process, before arriving at their destination and ultimately learning about themselves, their families, and the community around them. Nothing comes easily in this book, and certainly not without a little tragedy and despair.

My Verdict: I am glad to say that I enjoyed this book more than I did Beatrice and Virgil, but it still does not come close to Life of Pi. During the beginning of Tomas' story, I was worried that all three stories would be cluttered with details that ultimately the reader would not care much about. Tomas' uncle described the automobile he was lending his nephew in great detail, giving him extensive instructions. While I understand that this would be necessary since Tomas had never driven before, and cars were a new thing at the time, the length of the instructions were incredibly tiring and, well, boring. Thankfully, the story picks up once Tomas is on his way, and gets better as he becomes more familiar with car. Also, both Dr. Lozora and Peter's story are considerably free of such intricate detail and description, giving the reader just enough to imagine the world Martel is describing and eventually get lost in it. And the way all three stories end up coming together in the end is extremely well done and does not feel cheap in any sense.

Favorite Moment: When Odo insists on helping with the groceries, but the way he walks causes the bags to split open, allowing everything to fall out.

Favorite Character: I choose Peter because he seems less hapless than Tomas, and better able to deal with his grief than Dr. Lozora. And while his decision to pick up and move to Portugal is not exactly the most logical, he approaches it practically and takes the least dramatic approach to achieving his goal.

Recommended Reading: Naturally, I recommend Life of Pi if you have not already read it. If you have, then I recommend The Day of Atonement by David Liss, which is also set in Portugal. 

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