Book Review: Monkey business, again

02 February 2016 - 02:05 By Sarah Crown, ©Daily Telegraph


To write one novel with an animal in a starring role may be regarded as a curiosity; to write three starts to look like monomania. But 15 years after the thunderous success of his Man Booker prize-winning Life of Pi, Yann Martel has risked it again. In that book - which sold more than 7million copies worldwide and was adapted into a film by Ang Lee - he meditated on truth and faith via the medium of a young boy's relationship with a Bengal tiger. In its follow-up, Beatrice and Virgil (2010), Martel employed a donkey and a howler monkey to cast light on questions of morality, obligation and the Holocaust. This time around, it's grief and chimpanzees.The difficulty, of course, is that the success of Life of Pi sprang in large part from its singularity; by turning its selling point into a formula, Martel risks both eroding its impact and setting his subsequent novels up to suffer by comparison. And to some extent, suffer they do ("glib" was one of the kinder adjectives applied to Beatrice and Virgil).The High Mountains of Portugal is divided into three more or less autonomous sections, only lightly yoked together via their connection with the region of the title. This fragmentation means that it lacks Life of Pi's irresistible narrative drive (a vague attempt to tie up loose ends in the final pages feels desultory). Martel's fondness for whimsy is also, regrettably, still in evidence; he nearly lost me in the opening pages, in which he has his protagonist "walking backwards, his back to the world, his back to God" in order to register his "objection" to the deaths in his family. But don't give up on it on these grounds: stick around and you may, like me, be pleasantly surprised. What The High Mountains of Portugal misses in terms of plot, it makes up in curiosity, complexity and emotional clout.The novel opens in Lisbon in 1904. A young man by the name of Tomas has happened on an ancient journal from his country's colonial past which appears to suggest that somewhere in the high mountains of the title is hidden a crucifix of vast historical and religious significance. Prostrated by the deaths of his son and his lover, he fastens on to the idea with grim tenacity and sets out on a quest to discover it.The second part takes place in "the final hours" of New Year's Eve 1938, in a hospital in the city of Braganca, where Eusebio, a pathologist, is working late into the night. When a woman appears at his door and asks him to perform an autopsy on her husband "to see how he lived", he consents - and is awed by what he finds.In the final section, which begins in Canada in 1981, an elderly senator takes a work trip to Oklahoma following the death of his wife and pitches up at a chimpanzee sanctuary. Once there, he offers to buy one of the residents, and the pair proceed together to Portugal, the senator's ancestral home. In each section, a chimpanzee delivers the central character from his grief - though it's only in the final section that this deliverance becomes explicit, or explored.Bereavement is the force behind this novel, providing its sections with weight and heft. Through each tale, Martel considers the effect of death on those left behind, and while he offers consolations (beauty; nature; a suggestion that grief is not static, that it can change and grow), the shock of it remains. The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel, published by Canongate, R295

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