Of Apes and Automobiles

Reviewed by Robert McGill

Because each of the three connected stories in The High Mountains of Portugal features a protagonist mourning the death of his female intimate, you might think Yann Martel’s book is about how people deal with lost love. But the volume turns out to be more interestingly concerned with other kinds of isolation, from the separateness induced by technology to human beings’ sense of species-loneliness as they gaze across the abyss separating them from other animals.

The book’s first story, set in Portugal in 1904, is the most impressive of the three. Its protagonist is a man named Tomás who’s grieving the deaths of his lover, father, and son, and who sets off in his uncle’s Renault—one of the first cars in the country—in search of an unusual seventeenth-century crucifix. The object of Tomás’ quest necessarily directs us toward a religious reading, but the narrative’s greatest pleasures emerge from its attention to more material matters, as Martel skillfully dramatizes what it’s like for someone possessing a bare acquaintance with automobiles to drive one for days on end in a world not yet adapted to the car. We see motor vehicles from a fresh perspective as Tomás, moving across the earth at speeds that terrify him, becomes absorbed by the simple task of not running into ditches or other travellers. He finds that his “eyes tire from the strain and his hands hurt from gripping the steerage wheel,” and when he pulls over, exhausted, “[h]e blinks in astonishment. The application of the brake pedal has unpacked the landscape and it billows out around him, trees, hills, and vineyards to his left, textured fields and the Tagus to his right. He saw none of these while he was driving. There was only the devouring road ahead.” The description deftly evokes a novice driver’s frayed nerves while powerfully suggesting the ways in which cars have changed our relationship to space.

Frequently in the story, people crowd around the Renault to stare, spellbound. Others react with rage to its noisome intrusion on the Portuguese roads. As they do, we’re reminded just how inured to the automobile we’ve since become, whether regarding its pollution or the dangers it poses to its occupants and others. When, at a key moment in the text, Tomás commits what must be one of history’s first hit-and-runs, killing a child, our horror as he drives off is complicated by our awareness that such a response is, nowadays, all too common, and we’re liable to recognize it as a response that the automobile itself has fostered by creating a culture in which pedestrians are treated as obstructions to traffic, not traffic themselves. Tomás thinks it “mere chance” that the child was killed, but from our position in the twenty-first century, we know otherwise.

In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan observed: “All the rhinos and hippos and elephants in the world, if gathered in one city, could not begin to create the menace and explosive intensity of the hourly and daily experience of the internal-combustion engine.” That observation resonates fascinatingly with regard to The High Mountains of Portugal: the Renault has mudguards made out of elephant ears, and the book ends with a sighting of an Iberian rhinoceros, a creature previously identified as long extinct, victim of the same civilization that would go on to embrace the automobile. In that respect, it’s notable that Martel repeatedly depicts the Renault as a great beast that roars and growls and needs to be fed. It seems less than coincidental that “Renault” sounds a lot like “rhino.”

The parallels between automobiles and animals in the book’s first story gain further resonance in the third, which includes another car trip, this time undertaken in the early 1980s by a Canadian named Peter Tovy. Stricken by the death of his wife, Peter makes the trip along with a chimpanzee named Odo, whom he has purchased from a research facility in Oklahoma. The two drive across America on their way to Portugal, where they end up living in the same village at which Tomás eventually arrived in the first story. In Peter and Odo’s narrative, the automobile is not the star of the show. Rather, Martel expertly delineates the tender, complex relationship between the man and the chimp. This focus might strike readers as rather familiar, insofar as a spate of recent novels, from Kenneth Oppel’s Half Brother and Benjamin Hale’s The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore to Colin McAdam’s A Beautiful Truth and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, have similarly dealt with human-chimp relations. But the greater sense of narrative reprisal arises with respect to Martel’s novel Life of Pi. That’s especially true of the final scene in The High Mountains of Portugal, as Peter, alone outdoors with Odo, dies of cardiac arrest. (An earlier, pointed reference to Peter’s heart condition means it’s not exactly a spoiler to mention this turn of events.) Odo stays with the body for half an hour but then abandons it without any apparent regret. His departure strongly recalls the moment in Life of Pi when, after Pi has spent months at sea aboard a lifeboat with a tiger, they reach land and the beast departs the vessel with nary a backward glance, never to be seen again. Odo’s departure from Peter’s body similarly underscores Martel’s refusal to anthropomorphize and sentimentalize animals. For all Odo’s intelligence and emotional life, he remains a chimp and, thus, freer than a mourning human to move on from the past.

If The High Mountains of Portugal were constituted solely by its first and third stories, it would be a highly satisfying book, but Martel complicates things by including the second story, too. In this tale, a Portuguese pathologist in the late 1930s has a pair of strange encounters. The first is with a phantasmal version of his late wife, who lectures him about the meaning of Jesus’ emphasis on parables, and then about her theory that Agatha Christie’s mystery novels closely echo the New Testament. The implication—namely, that we should likewise read The High Mountains of Portugal as allegorical fiction with spiritual import—is one that most readers will likely find superfluous given the book’s religious inflections elsewhere. Moreover, the wife’s speech has every appearance of being an essay on literary and Biblical criticism inelegantly shoehorned into fiction. As for the pathologist’s second encounter, it involves him undertaking a bizarre autopsy that steers the story further from realism, such that the wife’s earlier lecture on the significance of parables comes to stand as a form of anticipatory self-justification on Martel’s part. Taken as a whole, the second story in The High Mountains of Portugal asserts the importance of suspending disbelief and of writers’ prerogative to eschew realism’s strictures. These assertions are valid enough, but the reader might feel they’re unnecessary, too similar to the moves made by lesser authors who gussy up their inadequacies by insisting, in one way or another, that it’s all just a dream. Of course it’s a dream; it’s fiction. And what marvellous fiction Martel can write.

This review “Of Apes and Automobiles” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 170-172.

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