‘The High Mountains of Portugal’ by Yann Martel

Yes, the high mountains of Portugal do exist, in the north east of the country, but, as the author writes, they are not very high at all. A more exact description of them would be a ‘plateau’, of scrubland and moor.

The book The High Mountains of Portugal falls into three parts, with three different protagonists and three different settings in time.

In the first part, entitled ‘Homeless’ and set in 1904, Tomas, the poor but indulged nephew of a rich uncle, sets off in his uncle’s motor car, never having driven one before, with predictable results. Having chanced upon a diary written by Father Ulysses, a priest wracked with despair after years working with slaves and slavers in Africa in the early seventeenth century, Tomas is obsessed with finding an artefact crafted by Father Ulysses, which is rumoured to be in a country church in the High Mountains.

The second part, entitled ‘Homeward’ is set late at night, in the last few hours of 1938. Pathologist Eusebio Lozora is still in his laboratory when he meets, firstly his dead wife Maria and secondly a peasant woman called Maria carrying her husband’s body in a suitcase. The wife Maria, described as a ‘theologian manque’, delivers a long, intense and well-structured treatise, on Psalm 22 and the parables of Jesus. The peasant woman Maria asks Eusebio to carry out a post-mortem on her husband on the spot and, when he does, he finds some unusual things, including a chimpanzee in the husband’s chest.

The third part, ‘Home’ concerns Peter Tovy, whose parents emigrated from the said high mountains of Portugal to Canada when he was a toddler. A successful Canadian politician, he returns to the high mountains in the company of an ape called Odo, whom he treats as a pet, cum companion.

All three protagonists have recently been bereaved of the woman in their lives and are grieving. Tomas was not an attractive character, self-absorbed and with no concern for anyone else. A peasant child? What is a peasant child to him? Tomas’s section is the longest and the first and I almost stopped reading. It was only because it was the book club book that I continued. I must admit that, as I reached the end of Tomas’s story, I glossed over quite a bit. He was just so repulsive. From Tomas to Eusebio, the tone becomes macabre – I can cope with macabre – then, when we get to Peter, it has lightened up substantially.

The peasant woman is the link between the three parts, as she has suffered from Tomas’s selfish actions and she has a familial connection with Peter. As the reader digs deeper, he/she realises that this book is really about the Christian religion. In the last few paragraphs, the humans are no longer in the story and the reader is left with Odo, the ape. The message, I think, is that we were all apes once and, despite all our machines and machinations, to being apes, we shall return.

If you’ve read this book too, please let me know what you thought.

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4 thoughts on “‘The High Mountains of Portugal’ by Yann Martel

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  1. It’s been a while since I read it so my memories aren’t as clear as I’d like, but I loved it – it was one of my books of the year that year. Looking back at my review, I said “The whole book is deliciously enigmatic and I’m sure could be read in a hundred different ways. It is a subtle discussion of the evolution vs. faith debate, with the old evolutionary saw of “risen apes, not fallen angels” appearing repeatedly. Chimps appear in some form in each of the sections, but symbolically rather than actually, except in the third. I feel Mantel is suggesting that the two sides of the debate are not irreconcilable, and that faith itself is the thing that is required to reconcile them. Small miracles are possible, but we will only see them as that if we let reason take a back seat for a bit.” Here’s a link to my review if you’d like to read it… https://fictionfanblog.wordpress.com/2016/04/27/the-high-mountains-of-portugal-by-yann-martel/


    1. Thank you for sharing your in-depth review. As you will have gathered, I tend to write shorter reviews but I believe you and I agree that this book is about the evolution v creationism debate and that it is possible to reconcile the two, as most Christians do. What struck me was that, in the end, the humans were out of the picture and only the ape was left.
      You obviously enjoyed the book more than I did. I found Tomas very annoying – no, downright repulsive – and it was a relief to move on to Eusebio and Peter, who were more sympathetic characters.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I read it in July 2016 and didn’t really get it. Interesting that Life of Pi is mentioned in today’s More than Writers’ blog post. I seem to remember I found that more exciting, although I read it even longer ago.

    Liked by 1 person

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