WHAT common thread links a chimpanzee, a long-extinct Iberian rhinoceros and an early 1900s automobile clad in elephant hide? All three are part of the disparate menagerie of characters that populates storyteller Yann Martel’s latest release.
From the author best known for the phenomenally popular Life of Pi, Martel’s new novel is in fact a series of three novellas that, although independent, share key elements.
The action begins in Lisbon in December 1904 as Tomás Lobo, still mourning the death of his beloved Dora and little Gaspar, sets out in search of a mysterious religious artefact created in Angola and carried to Europe via the slave colony of São Tomé. Using the diary of a 17th-Century priest, Father Ulisses Pinto, as inspiration, he winds his way along the plateau that separates his homeland from Spain to a cluster of isolated rural villages in the northernmost reaches of Portugal, encountering events perhaps bizarre, perhaps imagined along the way.
The second act takes place in Bragança, the focal point of Porugal’s northeastern province. It is New Year’s Eve 1938 and Dr Eusebio Lozora is working late in his hospital office, finalising paperwork for autopsies completed in recent days. Suddenly an elderly woman appears with her husband’s body packed neatly in a suitcase, demanding to know not how the man died but how he lived. Can the doctor provide the answer she seeks?
The third and final chapter stretches from Ottawa, Canada, to Oklahoma City, US, and then to Tuizelo, Portugal, in the early 1980s as freshly widowed Senator Peter Tovy embarks on a search for meaning of his own. Upending his routine existence, Tovy returns to the village of his Portuguese grandparents, taking with him the most unlikely of travelling companions.
Spanish-Canadian Martel will speak at the Melbourne Writers Festival next weekend.