Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal

“Sometimes I think Odo breathes time, in and out, in and out. I sit next to him and I watch him weave a blanket made of minutes and hours. And while we’re on top of a boulder watching a sunset, he’ll make a gesture with his hand, just something in the air, and I swear he’s working an angle or smoothing a surface of a sculpture whose shape I can’t see. But that doesn’t bother me. I’m in the presence of a weaver of time and a maker of space. That’s enough for me.”

Yann Martel’s latest novel The High Mountains of Portugal contains journeys, dreams and a memorable chimpanzee. With skill, Martel rolls the natural and the supernatural into a tale of both wonder and tragedy, loss and discovery.

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I think it’s that ‘discovery’ aspect that fascinated me the most. The story is told in three sections, each with a connection to the previous one. In 1904, a man takes a new-fangled automobile into the High Mountains of Portugal in search of a religious relic of the Seventeenth Century. In 1938, a pathologist in Braganca, Portugal has a bizarre but strangely beautiful and revealing dream about an autopsy. In 1981, an aging Canadian senator buys a chimpanzee and moves to the High Mountains of Portugal where he had been born.  The novel ends with a discovery of a different kind – also from the Seventeenth Century. In between, the characters learn and think and deal with the mystery of life.

Peter, the Canadian senator, and Odo, his chimpanzee companion give the novel it’s most endearing aspects. The relationship gives Peter a new outlook on life – one that has some optimism and peace. This novel is a brilliant portrayal of a world that can make sense in spite of circumstances that point to the contrary. Martel doesn’t make light of life’s tragedies and confusions, he simply paints them on a narrative canvas that contains hope.

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