Late in 1904, grief-stricken Tomàs travels from Lisbon to the High Mountains of Portugal, only to remark upon his arrival: "There are no mountains in the High Mountains of Portugal." In a novel by Yann Martel, whose work has featured a philosophical castaway tiger ("Life of Pi") and a Holocaust play starring a stuffed donkey and monkey ("Beatrice and Virgil"), it's no surprise to discover that something is not what it's supposed to be. Nor will it spoil any of the delights of his new novel, "The High Mountains of Portugal," if I tell you that the remarkable, perhaps transformative medieval artifact Tomàs seeks turns out to be an ape on a cross. ("And if he's an ape, so be it — he's an ape. He's still the son of God.")
Or that, some 34 years later, a grief-haunted pathologist pressed to perform an autopsy by a grieving widow finds a bear cub and a small chimpanzee in her husband's corpse.
Or that in 1981, Peter, a newly widowed Canadian senator, accompanied by a chimp, returns to his ancestral village in Portugal and stumbles upon the pathologist's report, the ape crucifix, and a "Golden Child" whose death in 1904 links all of them.
"This is crazy. What's with all the apes?" the senator's son says — and you can hardly blame him. After all, he's not privy to the insight shared by Tomàs and the tormented 17th-century priest who carved the crucifix on the slave-trading island of São Tomé: "We are risen apes, not fallen angels."
It is a home truth arrived at by all of these grief-stricken characters, made clear in the lessons — and comfort — that Peter takes from Odo, his simian companion. Most pertinently, "Odo is a being of the present moment, Peter realizes. Of the river of time, he worries about neither its spring nor its delta." Grief, for these characters, is very much a matter of time, of the past. "And the present moment has no past address."
Tomàs' incredible journey, in one of the very first automobiles; the theological puzzle laid out by the pathologist's wife, via Agatha Christie mysteries, and the story told by the widow with the weird corpse; Peter's move to Portugal, and what he learns from Odo: All lead from that past address to a home in the present.
Tomàs, bereft when his love and their little child die, "no longer has a home anywhere." It, "a mutual homesickness," is what draws him to the priest whose journal he follows to the High Mountains — where Peter, all those years later comes to understand, "Home is his story with Odo."
And it is a fine home, and story, in which to find oneself.
Ellen Akins is a writer in Cornucopia, Wis.