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'Life Of Pi' Author Delves Into Chimpanzee Fiction

Author Yann Martel poses in Toronto on April 5, 2010. Martel released his highly anticipated follow-up to the Booker Prize-winning "Life of Pi" last week.
Darren Calabrese
Author Yann Martel poses in Toronto on April 5, 2010. Martel released his highly anticipated follow-up to the Booker Prize-winning "Life of Pi" last week.

Fans of author Yann Martel's immensely popular Life of Pi, or of the film adapted from the novel 11 years later, will understand my eager anticipation of his new novel, The High Mountains of Portugal, released last week.

Martel's storytelling is fabulous, both literally — he blurs real worlds and dream worlds, human lives and lives of other animals — and figuratively. He lights up the page.

The High Mountains of Portugal consists of three linked sections called Homeless, Homeward and Home. Spread across the 20th century, these stories link up by their common setting in Portugal, by entangled family histories, by freshly felt grief, and by the strangely compelling presence of chimpanzees.

(I purposefully avoid spoilers in my account here; this review provides a fuller description.)

In Homeless, a turn-of-the-century museum worker, still in mourning from three great losses, sets out from Lisbon on a quest to find a highly unusual religious object in the distant region of his country called the high mountains, where, as it turns out, there aren't mountains at all. From this geographical surprise, we know right away that things aren't always what they seem.

The role of the chimpanzee in this story is as shocking as it is fleeting, and the same could be said regarding what happens in Homeward, when a 1930s pathologist, also grieving, makes a surprising discovery inside a body that he opens up for autopsy. Throughout these first two sections of the book, the world is just as dreamy as I'd come to expect from Martel: Ghosts and ghost-like memories drift in and out of the narrative.

This gauzy surreality vanishes in Home, when for the first time an ape roars to life as a full participant in the story. Odo the chimpanzee is rescued from miserable caged conditions by a visiting Canadian politician. Odo had been in "a dark and dank underworld," at the Institute for Primate Studies in Norman, Okla., run by an unsavory scientist named Bill Lemnon.

Reading this plot turn, my eyes snapped open wide: There was an Institute of Primate Studies in Norman, where in the 1980s, as a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma, I met the chimpanzees held captive there by scientist Bill Lemmon. (Note the change of a single letter from the fictional to the living man. If you've seen the heart-wrenching documentary film Project Nim, you've seen in its opening sequences how the chimpanzees at the real IPS were treated by Lemmon).

Peter Tovy, the rescuing politician from Canada — at this point in the book we expect him to be in mourning and indeed he is — meets Odo and can't forget him. "The ape remains a luminous secret in his heart," Martel writes. Quite suddenly, Peter sheds the shackles of his life, buys Odo, and escapes to Portugal with him. Man and ape find their way to a place of mutual respect and stillness together, punctuated by bursts of frenzied exploration and play.

Odo has rescued Peter, too.

Is chimpanzee fiction a recognized genre? It should be. In the most wonderful recent examples — in my estimation, Benjamin Hale's The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and Colin McAdam's A Beautiful Truth -- we meet chimpanzees who are fully involved with humans, sometimes so intimately it's startling.

Odo is different. He takes joy in Peter, but he's profoundly himself. Helped along by those spoilers I won't give away, we come to understand that Peter's "curious love" for Odo is in large part because Odo isn't changed as a result of their emerging relationship as much as he is an agent for Peter's own change:

The idea, of course, isn't to read fiction for scientific accuracy. Hale's Bruno spouts Shakespeare; Martel's Odo displays none of the lightning-fast aggression of many male chimpanzees. If I were to sit down with Martel, I might ask him why he thinks that apes live so much in the present when, in fact, feats of memory and planning ahead are among chimpanzees' well-known capacities. But neither that discussion — nor the knowledge that chimpanzee pet-keeping is a terrible ethical wrong — have any bearing on the wonder of Martel's art.

In scientific discourse, it's debatable whether we humans are apes or not.

In The High Mountains of Portugal, it's not about what kind of primates we are as much as about linking our past, present and future together via the stories we tell ourselves about who we may become.

Sometimes it's our animal kin who show us the way. We are invited by them to make that slight turn of the kaleidoscope, view our lives in novel arrangement, and seize a new moment for ourselves.

Barbara J. King retired from her post as anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary at the end of 2015. She often writes about human evolution, primate behavior and the cognition and emotion of animals. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.