Yann Martel’s latest novel is, for me at least, a disturbing book: at once compassionate and yet surreal. Its three main characters are perhaps delusional, at least extremely unhappy, all of them coping not particularly well with the loss of loved ones. The novel spans a period of eighty-five years, and its three narratives set in different times but closely connected detail how three different men respond to bereavement.
The first section of the novel, “Homeless” begins with Tomás a librarian leaving 1904 Lisbon in a car borrowed from his wealthy uncle in search of a crucifix, which was carved in Africa during the slave trade by Father Ulisses, a Portuguese Priest, and which according to episcopal archives appears to have ended up in a remote village in the High Mountains, which actually aren’t high at all. In the second section “Homeward,” pathologist Dr. Eusebio Lozora conducts an unscheduled autopsy on New Year’s Eve 1938 while the widow of the cadaver looks on. The last section “Home” follows retired Canadian senator Peter Tovey as he journeys to his ancestral village in Portugal accompanied by a chimpanzee he has rescued from an American research facility.
All three narratives reveal how grief may precipitate eccentricity, even hallucination, but the novel is far more than case studies of the grieving. It leaves us asking questions about the grief that comes when faith itself is lost and leads us to consider the whole nature of faith and belief. How do we maintain faith in the face of loss? In the light of science? And possibly the most important question of all: how do we cope with the fact “‘We all live in a murder mystery of which we are the victim’” (164).
For me, the most interesting section of the book is the long disquisition by Dr. Lozora’s wife as she draws parallels between the gospels and the Agatha Christie mysteries of which her husband is so fond and which she describes as “modern gospels for a modern people” (164). She asks, “That’s the great, enduring challenge of our modern times is it not, to marry faith and reason?” (165).
She refers to the four Evangelists as “allegorists” (154), and it is highly tempting to define Martel similarly. Certainly, the novel can be read on many levels, a study in the psychology and pathology of love and grief, a ghost story, perhaps, or an exercise in some kind of magic realism. But I’m not sure these are the issues that are really at the centre of the work. Of more import, I believe, is her assertion that “A story is a wedding in which we listeners are the groom watching the bride coming up the aisle. It is together, in an act of imaginary consummation, that the story is born” (155).
In the novel, Martel then has Maria Lorozo go on to explain her understanding of the story of Jesus, but his fictional character’s words strike a chord with us Martel’s readers. Surely, we too are on a quest to see where his story/ies take/s us. How we understand his narratives will contribute to our response to the novel as a whole. In other words, then, the novel challenges us to consider the creation of fiction as something of a joint enterprise between the writer and the reader.
It was in these ideas that I found most satisfaction in the novel. In terms of a traditional plot structure, I’m not sure that I found any real sense of resolution. I’m not particularly sure that I completely empathized with any of the three men whose individual quests make up the framework of the book. The pleasure, if pleasure is the correct word, that I gained from this novel came from the intellectual acrobatics I found myself performing as I participated in the work. It left me feeling if not sad, then melancholic. At times, especially in the last section, Martel’s prose is lyrical and emotive, for he does indeed “play the language like a mandolin” (152). I sensed, too, a certain wistfulness and a despair that the only certainty in the human condition is loss; and permanent happiness, as elusive as the Iberian rhinoceros.
Ultimately, I found the novel to be an extremely clever book, but its cleverness was too obvious, too self-conscious, for me to really enjoy it. I don’t think I will read this novel again, and, for me, the mark of a really engaging work is one to which I know I will return.