When an automobile starts chugging down a road in Portugal, 1904, you settle down happily to read. This must be one of those historical novels people are always writing these days. Fifteenth century England, fourteenth century Italy, Burma in the Second World War, France during the first. Get yourself a setting and you have yourself a story.

But this is Yann Martel, and the external is incidental. The High Mountains of Portugal is, instead, a novel that cannot believe its own profundity.

Three heartbroken men must deal with the loss of a partner and all roads lead to the High Mountains of Portugal. In 1904, Tomas sets off on a bumpy ride to search for a crucifix that could change the course of Christianity. In 1939, Eusebio Losabia reads the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie and looks for causes of death in corpses. In 1981, Peter Tovy buys a chimpanzee.

All perfectly viable storylines, but the novel is not really about these men and their lives. It is a meditation on faith, the body, the body in faith, love, loss, death, time, stories, the human condition, you name it. Across three sections, it strenuously urges the Darwinian idea that men are not fallen angels but risen apes. Martel’s interest in his characters is perfunctory. They are best used as vessels for philosophical nuggets straight from the yoga mats of a new age religion:

“What does suffering do to a man? Does it open him up? Does he understand any more as a result of his suffering?”

“A story is a wedding in which we listeners are the groom watching the bride come up the aisle.”

And some unnecessary italics:

Enough of this, Peter thinks.”

Books and boxes

Like Beatrice and Virgil, Martel’s previous offering, this novel is endlessly mounted. The earlier novel was supposed to be an allegory for the Holocaust told through stuffed animals in a taxidermist’s chamber. The mass extermination of animals became a parable for the Holocaust in a novel that drew on Dante and Flaubert, woven between a play written by one character and a flipbook written by another. A text within a text within a text, like a system of Chinese boxes, but at the heart of it, hollow.

The High Mountains of Portugal follows three storylines, each touched by the other in some way and the end returning to the beginning in a perfect circle. Other books float up here as well – a diary kept by a seventeenth century priest, Christie’s Appointment With Death – physical presences of paper and ink that are supposed to be charged with their own mythic energy.

Except that none of these conceits lives up to its promise of momentous revelation. There is a great amount of dwelling on objects, there is a great amount of dwelling on actions. The heartbroken men eat breakfast, scratch themselves, fall asleep, none of it very compelling on its own or leading to a great denouement.

Animals again

Once again, Martel falls back on sentient animals who are supposed to play a totemic role in the story. In theLife of Pi, it was a tiger; in Beatrice and Virgil, a monkey and a donkey. This time it’s a godlike chimpanzee who scampers purposefully across the landscape of the story, much like the preternaturally intelligent dogs and talking parrots of a Sooraj Barjatya movie.

In a recent interview, Martel said that “...the animal is both itself and something else, a kind of canvas. And that’s very useful for a writer to have…” But you do wish he’d drop the habit.

Of course, animals have appeared as powerful symbols in fiction before. Think of Jose Saramago’s The Elephant’s Journey, another story that starts in Portugal. As Suleiman the elephant travels across a continent, across time and cultures, he is absorbed into history and finally into legend. Oddly enough, you love the actual elephant as much as the symbol.

The same cannot be said of poor Odo, Martel’s ape. By the time you get through a long behavioural study of the totemic chimpanzee and lectures on animal simplicity, you’re glad to see the last of him.

Cold light of reason

The trouble may be that, though the novel attempts a kind of magic realism, it fails to take the imaginative leap into the truly marvellous. Fatally, Martel tries to explain the irrational – why a man chose to walk backwards, how a child whose death was supposed to be a miracle really died in a car accident, why a woman burst into a doctor’s chamber one night babbling about faith. Without the glittering lunacy that attends Saramago’s or Garcia Marquez’s landscapes, the world of this novel appears slightly mannered, slightly twee.

There is one moment in the middle that is wholly unexpected, when a doctor excavates a man’s body to find out “how he lived”. The human body suddenly flowers into an object of wonder. But the promise of this moment, like so many others in the novel, is swallowed up by great gouts of profundity.

The High Mountains of Portugal, Yann Martel, Canongate.

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