This is not an easy book to read. It feels almost as if it is set in a world of make-believe, and perhaps it is. When it begins, we meet a young man, Tomás, who walks backwards to deal with his grief from the sudden deaths of his lover Dora, a servant in his uncle’s house, their child Gaspar, and his father, Silvestro, all within the same week. It is his way of voicing his objections to G-d about his loss rather than an expression of his grief. Tomás works as an assistant curator in a museum dealing with ancient art. When he is sent to do research on a particular shipment that arrived at the museum, he discovers the diary of a defrocked priest, Father Ulisses Manuel Rosario Pinto. He secretly removes it, so he can read it. In the diary, it is revealed that the priest had an epiphany and objected to the slave trade and to the way slaves were treated. He was excommunicated from the church. He set about creating a gift which he believed would shed light on the mystery of life. Ulisses believed we were “risen apes, not fallen angels”. Tomas believes that the gift he created had to be a crucifix. He leaves his job and sets out to find this object in the high mountains of Portugal where the priest had lived. He believes if he can locate it, he can reveal a truth that will change the world and give a greater voice to his feelings about his suffering and the reasons for it. The year is 1904, in Portugal. His uncle lends him a car which he does not know how to drive, a car that is unique and valuable. The car is assaulted on his quest, as is Tomás. People are astonished by the sight of it and by the odd appearance and behavior of its driver. Then, one day in the high mountains of Portugal, Tomás discovers the crucifix he seeks within a church and is stunned by its appearance. When the car is involved in a strange, tragic accident causing the death of a child, the beautiful son of the Castros,Tomás abandons the car and runs off.
In Part two, still in Portugal, in the mid 1930’s, a renowned pathologist, Dr. Eusebio Lozora, is mourning the loss of his beloved wife who died strangely and unexpectedly. He is lost without her, but he insisted on performing the autopsy himself in order to discover the reason for her death, in spite of his sorrow. One evening, a stranger called Maria, knocks on his door and asks the pathologist to perform an autopsy on her husband’s body. She wants to find out how he lived. She has packed her husband Rafael, inside a trunk. Their child was the victim of an odd, tragic automobile accident, in 1904, after which Rafael Castro was never the same. Superstitions grew up around the death of that golden child believed to be an angel who could grant wishes of fertility. In this way, part 1 and part 2 are connected. As he performed the autopsy, he found unusual and strange objects like a chimpanzee, a bear cub, twigs, a knife and a fork, within the body’s various cavities. Eventually, he sews the body back up and bizarrely, the woman climbs inside and is enclosed, as well.
In Part three, in 1981, a Senator, Peter Tovy, from Ontario, Canada goes on a trip to the United States and unexpectedly purchases a chimpanzee named Odo. He, too, was bereft because of the loss of his wife, Clara. He decides to pack it all in and retire to his parent’s birthplace in the high mountains of Portugal, leaving his son Ben and granddaughter Rachel, behind. Coincidence after coincidence takes place until he finally realizes he has returned not only to his family’s birthplace, but also to the actual family home. The unusual crucifix, sought by Tomás, is coincidentally still in the church in his family’s hometown, and the connection to the beginning of the tale is made. In the high mountains, he regresses as he identifies more and more with his pet Odo, and less and less with societal needs. He gives up many creature comforts like his watch for he discovers that the natural world keeps the time for him. He finds he enjoys the company of the ape, more than he expected, and is quite content.
When the book ends, loose ends are joined and characters unique connections are revealed, but still, there are open questions. While the three stories are linked, they also feel oddly disconnected, in their own way. It is as if chance has brought them together, as if serendipity is at work. Recurrent themes are important to the story, like religion, Agatha Christie novels, chimpanzees, crucifixes, anti-Jewish sentiment, the automobile, suitcases, loss and grief and the different roads people choose in order to recover from their individual loneliness and sorrow. The book tackles the human need for comfort and company, Darwin and religion, and even politics to some degree, as it covers almost a century of time, with slapstick humor and fantasy.
The mirth in the tale was evident in phrases like “the car was eating up the road”, or it was “like a stomach in need of feeding”, which painted bizarre images for the reader of the car as a living animal. His effort to get rid of lice, with a powder used for horses, had disastrous consequences. The use of several Portuguese quotes was distracting, but the prose was almost poetic. The narrator was perfect for the book, modulating his voice appropriately and presenting the role of each character clearly, so at least in that way there was no confusion. For creativity, the book deserves a 5, but for credibility, only a 3. For pleasurable reading, the book was also a 3, for me. It felt like hard work, at times, as I tried to connect the dots and figure out the meaning behind the story.