Yann Martel’s “The High Mountains”

The High Mountains, like Life of Pi, is a book filled with wonders, sublime emotionality, and a bit of implausibility. There is, too, the ingenious bond between human and animal, in this case between a man and an ape. This theme, critical to the story Martel tells, begins with the slave trade and a Portuguese priest’s revelation that humans are “risen apes, not fallen angels,” then circles forward in the third novelette to Peter, a retired politician living with his ape companion, Odo, realizing that, “what’s come as a surprise is his [Peter’s] movement down to Odo’s so-called lower status…While Odo has mastered the simple human trick of making porridge, Peter has learned the difficult animal skill of doing nothing. He’s learned to unshackle himself from the race of time and contemplate time itself…” Martel seems to be implying that in becoming this “risen ape,” humans have lost something immeasurable, something vital, something soulful.

The book is filled with laugh-out-loud humor, gorgeous detail, and moments of such tenderness that the heart can’t help but ache. The second novelette, however, acts as some sort of rubbery glue, consisting of a mini-dissertation on the Bible and Agatha Christie which, though intense and fascinating, feels out of place, interposed with a strange, surreal autopsy which produces a chimp inside a corpse. This is one place where Martel falls short in his mastery of storytelling.

But  moments where self and the other meet, as in the case of the priest and an imprisoned slave woman, are shattering. “She turned her head & looked me in the eyes… My tongue was stilled of any priestly cant. I am transformed. I saw. I have seen. I see. That short gaze made me see a wretchedness that until then had never echoed in my heart. I entered that cell thinking I was a Christian man. I walked out knowing I was a Roman soldier. We are no better than animals.” And later, full circle again in the third novelette, Peter recounts the remarkable moment when his ape truly sees him. “To be so imperatively summoned by the ape, and therefore so forcefully acknowledged – he is shocked. He feels as if he’s just been birthed out of nonexistence.”

What is human, what is animal? Slaves were considered animals, creatures put to work the soil, lesser, equated with brutish behavior, inferior status, intelligence, and morality. But as Martel shows us by the third novelette, to be an animal is to embody emotion, compassion, dignity, love. To be an animal is to understand the present moment, to revel in it, to have no past, no future, to “[burst] dramatically…then [make] way once more for the blue sky, the permanent blue sky.” We are human and animal both. We must no longer see them as a clash between superior and inferior, sacred and profane, but a merging between two sides of wholeness. To reach for the greatest qualities in each is to discover our highest potential.


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