Book Jacket Synopsis: “In Lisbon in 1904, a young man named Tomás discovers an old journal. It hints at the existence of an extraordinary artifact that—if he can find it—would redefine history. Traveling in one of Europe’s earliest automobiles, he sets out in search of this strange treasure. Thirty-five years later, a Portuguese pathologist devoted to the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie finds himself at the center of a mystery of his own and drawn into the consequences of Tomás’s quest. Fifty years on, a Canadian senator takes refuge in his ancestral village in northern Portugal, grieving the loss of his beloved wife. But he arrives with an unusual companion: a chimpanzee. And there the century-old quest will come to an unexpected conclusion. The High Mountains of Portugal—part quest, part ghost story, part contemporary fable—offers a haunting exploration of great love and great loss. Filled with tenderness, humor, and endless surprise, it takes the reader on a road trip through Portugal in the last century—and through the human soul.”
Review: I really wanted to like The High Mountains of Portugal. Like most Yann Martel readers, I LOVED Life of Pi. I even enjoyed Beatrice and Virgil, which seems to put me in the minority (maybe enjoyed isn’t the right word, but I certainly appreciated it). However, this latest Martel novel (written in three parts) misses the mark, particularly in the first and second sections. In general, I found the novel to be preachy and misguided. The book jacket synopsis, while technically being true, makes the novel sound way more exciting than it actually is. The object that Tomás, protagonist of the first part of the book, seeks would certainly NOT “redefine history.” Indeed, the first section was by far the most tiresome, with over 100 pages essentially dedicated to documenting Tomás as he tries to get a car to work. There are some great quotes, as you would expect from Martel, but the plot itself was sorely lacking.
“Love is a house with many rooms.”
While the Portuguese pathologist in part two is obsessed with Agatha Christie, his obsession plays little to no role in the actual “mystery” he investigates. The High Mountains of Portugal reached peak preachiness during this section, but improved towards the end. I particularly enjoyed reading about his surreal autopsy, though I doubt I picked up on all of the symbolism Martel intended.
“That is Christianity at heart: a single miracle surrounded and sustained by stories, like an island surrounded by the sea.”
The third and final part of the book, focused on a Canadian senator and his chimp companion, Odo, was by far the highlight of the book and reaffirmed that, in my opinion, Martel does his best work when he writes about animals.
“Of the river of time, he worries about neither its spring nor its delta.”
I truly enjoyed this final section, particularly the relationship between Odo and the senator. But it was simply not enough to make up for a dull first part and an exhausting second one.