I remember being assigned Life of Pi in high school as part of a Contemporary Literature class. At that time, it was a fairly new novel, perhaps only two or three years after publication. I remember thinking how strange it was to be reading a story that was essentially plot-less – for most of the story, it’s just Pi and the tiger stuck in the boat. It wasn’t, as the books I tended to read at that time were, driven by action. It took me until the end of the novel, until after I sat and processed what I’d just read, to realize what the book was really trying to accomplish. It’s a narrative of humanity at its rawest, at the edge of what we all could be – pure, wild, desperate.
In a lot of ways, The High Mountains of Portugal is very similar in that it is an exploration of humanity, but on a much more intimate level. The story is told in three acts – first, with Tomas in 1904, traveling across Portugal in an automobile that he only barely makes out of alive, on a quest to find an obscure religious relic. Second, Dr. Lozora questions spirituality and mortality with an unusual autopsy. Third, Canadian Senator Peter Tovy makes a radical life change in the form of an ape named Odo.
The truth is, this novel is heavily religious. And sometimes that makes me, as a reader, uncomfortable. Religion is a very personal thing, especially at the level that Martel writes about it. But I think in a way, it works for this story. The novel gets very deep and personal, accessing these characters at their most vulnerable. The exploration of spirituality takes various shapes throughout the novel but still speaks to the personality of the subject and their reactions to the world around them. And it is, at times, uncomfortable – but human vulnerability and truth always is. The novel studies humanity under a microscope, making the tiniest details and moments fascinating and moving. When it all comes crashing together, we are brought back out to the big picture – exploring questions of faith, fate and family, of our place in society and in the evolution of the earth. In this way, we noticed how connected everything is, and how the tiniest details and moments can effect the world around us.
This book, like Life of Pi, needs a little processing – it’s definitely one of those “what the fuck did I just read” moments. But at the end of it, I think you’ll come out feeling a little more enlightened.