THE HIGH MOUNTAINS OF PORTUGAL
By Yann Martel
Canongate/ Paperback/ 329 pages/ $31.73 (excluding GST)/Books Kinokuniya/****
Here is what you need to pack for the long, meandering journey through The High Mountains Of Portugal: a lot of patience and a staggering willingness to suspend disbelief.
This is a book that - like grief, the main emotion stalking its characters - needs time and faith.
But payoff does come - slowly - in the buildup of history and emotion because with each new story, the connections between seemingly disparate characters start to show themselves.
Yann Martel's Man Booker prize-winning debut novel Life Of Pi was a structured, fairly uncom- plicated affair with a touch of fantasy. There is a man-eating tiger, for instance, as a boy's only companion when he is lost at sea.
But he has found it hard to top that success. Beatrice And Virgil (2010) was a gawky, uncharming allegory of the Holocaust through a talking donkey and monkey. Then came 101 Letters To A Prime Minister (2012), which is a collection of letters Martel sent to the Canadian prime minister.
His latest book returns to fiction. It is made up of three stories set in Portugal that span almost a century. In each, people die and the survivors struggle to find ways to cope. Recurring motifs - men dealing with their grief by walking backwards, for instance, and chimpanzees - echo through all the tales, unifying the collection.
It is a slog at the start: Martel is heavyhanded with details which, at some points, weigh the story down. But once I was done, I found myself flipping through the book again, picking up on the details of names and places that link one story to the next.
High Mountains is probably not the comeback readers would expect of Martel. It does not have the same accessibility of Life Of Pi, but it has a similar theme about human resilience and survival. While it confronts death and grief, it leaves a sense of hope: that humans can overcome their loss and, perhaps, even grow from it.
The first story, Homeless, is a slapstick romp through the Portuguese countryside that starts and ends in anguish. Tomas loses his son, wife and father in a matter of days and sets off on a mad scramble to find a strange crucifix he read about in the diary of a 17th-century priest.
Despite never having driven in his life, he heads for a church at the wheel of his uncle's new Renault and meets with lice, fire, swarms of peasants and - abruptly - an accident, ending the life of a young boy.
The second story is Homeward, which takes readers forward 30 years to the office of recently widowed forensic pathologist, Eusebio Lozora. The story begins when an old woman comes to him requesting that he cut open her dead husband. His body is in a suitcase she has been hauling around since his death some days ago. Grief over their son's death - he was knocked down by a car some years back - has killed him, she says.
As the pathologist slices into the body, he finds an unlikely assortment of items: mud and soft down, a small handmade wooden horse and cart. In the chest cavity lies a chimpanzee, whose arms are wrapped around a bear cub.
The last story Home sees Canadian senator Peter Torey in 1981, after his wife's death, rescuing a chimpanzee Odo from a laboratory and moving to Portugal - where he was born - to live with the ape. They strike up an easy companionship, sharing breakfasts and studying each other. To Odo, Peter thinks, he is probably "a curio, an oddity of the natural world, a dressed-up ape that circles around this natural one, hypnotically attracted".
In Odo's silence and pensive slowness, in the "profound simplicity of his means and aims", Peter, still stinging with grief, finds comfort.
"You're in love with it," notes his sister. And perhaps it is love: "One that strips him of any privilege... He's been touched by the grace of the ape and there's no going back to being a plain human being."
This story is the book's most direct look at man ("risen apes, not fallen angels") and animal - a preoccupation of Martel's throughout his work, how two species can find themselves in each other.
Caught in the gaping maw of grief, humans deal with an animal pain, devolving into irrationality. But animals, Martel shows, are also capable of an almost human compassion.
If you like this, read: Death Of Vishnu by Manil Suri (W W Norton and Co, Paperback, 2001, $26.81, Books Kinokuniya), an oddly comic tale about how an alcoholic houseboy on the edge of death becomes the centrepoint for drama, comedy and tragedy for residents of the apartment house where he lies dying.