Well, this book surprised me. Mostly because it didn’t surprise me. Remember that ridiculous prediction I made about the chimp? Turns out it wasn’t so ridiculous. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
This book starts out following Tomás in the wake of his family’s death. Within one week he loses the woman he loves, his child, and his father. Understandably, it leaves him a bit damaged. As a way to express his grief, he starts walking backward. I didn’t really get it, but we all grieve differently, right?
While working on some old records, Tomás finds a priest’s diary and becomes obsessed with a relic that the priest designed. He borrows his uncle’s automobile (it’s 1904, so they’re pretty new) and sets off to the High Mountains of Portugal to find this relic. His uncle’s driving instructions are hilariously brief. Pull this lever, push this pedal, and you’re good to go. See you in ten days.
Tomás hates the automobile, but it’s the only way he can make it to his destination and back home in the time he has off from work. Yann Martel does an excellent job of making you feel as though you are jolting along the rural roads of Portugal with Tomás. It is excellent writing. It’s not exactly comfortable reading.
Also, it drags on. Tomás doesn’t make it to his destination and back in ten days. In fact, it takes him that long just to reach the High Mountains of Portugal, which, by the way, doesn’t have any mountains. Tomás is having a mental breakdown during this journey, and while it’s described masterfully, I got tired of reading about a man fighting with his car and scratching his lice and sobbing into the elephant-leather seats.
There are some high points. In one village a woman threatens to feed him to a dog and then eat the dog. I’ll give her top marks for originality. I might have to use that threat someday. The excerpts from the priest’s diary really make you want to know what this relic is that Tomás is chasing. Finally we learn that it is a crucifix, but one that will shake Christendom to its core. Tomás believes that bringing this relic to life will destroy people’s faith, just as his has been destroyed by the death of his family.
In his very lowest point, Tomás hits and kills a child with his automobile. It really is not his fault, but rather than face what he has done he flees down the road, his guilt now hastening his complete collapse. He finally makes it to the village that holds the crucifix, which depicts a chimpanzee on the cross, rather than a man. The villagers dismiss Tomás’s claim, believing instead that the figure on the crucifix is oddly proportioned because it was meant to be viewed from below, and the artist was attempting to correct the distortion from that perspective. Also, Tomás is not a very credible figure at the moment. He collapses outside the church and his part of the story ends.
I was honestly pretty relieved to leave Tomás behind. I felt some sympathy for him, but I still didn’t like him much. And my feelings for him completely dried up after he left a child lying in the road. The urge to flee is an understandable and very human reaction. It’s also despicable.
We leap ahead 35 years to the morgue in Bragança, Portugal. Eusebio Lozora is the pathologist there. He is working late at night on December 31st, 1938, attempting to catch up on his paperwork. He is interrupted by his wife, who drops in with some books and a bottle of wine. I love this woman already.
They have a very entertaining discussion about theology and Agatha Christie and how the Gospel story is like a murder mystery. It’s more of a monologue really, with Eusebio nodding along to his wife’s thoughts. This is my favorite scene of the book.
Eusebio’s wife finally leaves and he tries to get back to work, only to be interrupted by another woman. A widow has dragged her dead husband down from the High Mountains of Portugal for him to perform an autopsy. Eusebio cuts the body open to find that the man is filled with an odd assortment of things from vomit to feathers to children’s toys. I was fairly certain that either Martel or myself was hallucinating.
It turns out, neither of us were, but Eusebio was. The woman who transcribes his autopsies comes in the next morning to find him passed out at his desk. She is worried about him, ever since his wife died recently. He is not handling the grief well.
Despite the fact that the autopsy never happened (OR DID IT?!?) some interesting facts come to light. The widow tells Eusebio that she and her husband had a son, who was killed when he was five years old. He was out of town with his father, who had gone on a trip for work. He was discovered, miles from where he should have been, dead on the road.
To continue our triad of widowers, we jump to 1988 and across an ocean. Canadian Senator Peter Tovy has just lost his wife. He drifts around for a while, buys a chimpanzee on impulse, and moves to Portugal to explore his roots. He goes back to the village his parents left when he was three years old, in the High Mountains of Portugal.
With surprisingly little difficulty, Peter settles into his new life with no electricity and a simian roommate. He lives this simple existence for two years, learning how to exist only in the present from his chimp.
One day he discovers a suitcase full of odd things (the same things that were found in the body during the autopsy of part 2). While investigating the contents, he learns that the house he is living in is his old family residence. This leads to the discovery that his mother’s cousin, who was killed when he was only five, has become a sort of local saint women pray to when they’re having trouble conceiving. Also, the crucifix hanging in the local church looks oddly like a chimp.
Peter, who has a bad heart, then takes a long walk with his chimpanzee and dies out on the plateau of the High Mountains of Portugal. The End.
As I said, this book is masterfully written. Yann Martel excels at subtlety. Little things tie all the sections together, such as walking backwards to express grief. It also has touches that will feel familiar to fans of Life of Pi, such as animals who straddle the line between characters and symbols. There’s also an ambiguity about what is really happening and what the characters are imagining. If I was grading the writing, I would give this a 9/10.
When it comes to enjoyability, the grade falls to about 6.5. On the one hand, I like that Martel doesn’t feel the need to spell every little detail out for his readers. On the other hand, the fact that he sets up important moments and then just lets them hang there creates a lack of resolution that I find unsettling. Just tell me what happened already!
I admire Yann Martel’s writing, but I don’t know that I like reading his books. And I think he might take that as a compliment. I certainly don’t mean it as an insult. I think it’s okay for books to leave you a little uncomfortable. But it isn’t what you’re looking for when you just want to curl up in front of the fire with a mug of tea.