What is sometimes called the "novel of ideas" encounters two challenges: the novel and the ideas. It is difficult to wed the two, as evidenced by Ayn Rand, who inserted vapid ideas into flaccid prose. Fyodor Dostoevsky and Albert Camus, by contrast, composed extraordinary fictions that mull over fundamental questions of identity, ethics, and justice.
Yann Martel was not quite as successful with a first novel, "Self'' (1996), that the Canadian writer later disowned. The story of a man who awakens on his 18th birthday to find himself transformed into a woman, the novel flouts rigid concepts of gender. Martel's second novel, "Life of Pi'' (2001), the account of a boy and a Bengal tiger who survive 227 days at sea together, was not only a spectacular commercial and critical triumph. It also made effective use of the fiction of shipwreck to examine beliefs in God and the nature of narrative. Martel's eagerly anticipated third novel, "Beatrice and Virgil'' (2010), which drew an estimated $3 million advance, was not nearly as well received. A novel of ideas in which a donkey and a howler monkey in a taxidermy shop ponder the Holocaust, it was dismissed by most critics as merely ponderous.
In his new book, "The High Mountains of Portugal,'' Martel continues his quirky romance with ideas, using three interlocking novellas to chew over religious revelation, human mortality, and interspecies communication, among other notions. Set in 1904, the first section follows young Tomás Lobo, a museum curator, on his blundering journey from Lisbon to a church in northeastern Portugal, where he hopes to retrieve an unusual crucifix alluded to in the 17th-century diary of a priest posted in Africa among Portuguese slavers. Tomás's wealthy uncle insists on lending his nephew his 14-horsepower Renault, one of the first automobiles in the country, and the expedition into the High Mountains of Portugal becomes a comic epic of disasters, as Tomás, who does not know how to drive, suffers flat tires, mechanical breakdowns, storms, fire, lice, illness, blocked roads, and attacks by angry peasants. He also discovers that "there are no mountains in the High Mountains of Portugal. There is nothing beyond mere hills. . . . It is an extensive, undulating, mostly treeless steppe, cool, dry, and bleached by a clear, dispassionate sunshine."
In the second section, set in 1938 at the edge of those "High Mountains of Portugal," Eusebio Lozora, a hospital pathologist, is working late on New Year's Eve when his dead wife, Maria, visits him and lectures him on the parallels between the Gospels and murder mysteries by Agatha Christie. After she departs, another woman, a stranger also named Maria, enters and implores Eusebio to perform an autopsy on her dead husband, Rafael, whom she has conveniently brought along in a suitcase.
The third section jumps to 1981, when Peter Tovy, a Canadian senator, falls in love with a chimpanzee named Odo and determines to move with him to Tuizelo, the village in the High Mountains of Portugal where Peter was born. Man and ape find transcendent happiness in a primitive farmhouse devoid of electricity and running water.
Martel, who begins "Life of Pi'' in a Pondicherry zoo, maintains his fascination with the porous borders between homo sapiens and other species. Not only is Odo the chimp one of the most important, and engaging, characters in "The High Mountains of Portugal,'' but the missing crucifix that is the object of hapless Tomás's quest features the likeness of a martyred ape. The sighting of a legendary Iberian rhinoceros, said to have disappeared centuries ago, is endowed with the weight of a mystical vision. "We are random animals," Tomás, weeping, realizes. "We are risen apes, not fallen angels"
"Animals know boredom, but do they know loneliness?" Tomás asks himself. His conclusion: "Not this kind of loneliness, of the body and the soul. He belongs to a lonely species."
Like Tomás, whose grief over the death of his lover prevents him from facing the world directly and impels him to walk in public backwards, Eusebio and Peter are each in mourning for deceased wives. Bonding with an ape is an antidote to the solitude of the human condition. All of this, particularly Maria Lozora's sermon on secular novels as parables of sacred epiphany, might seem like so much pious piffle, but for Martel's drollery and ingenuity in packing his inventive novel with beguiling ideas.
What connects an inept curator to a haunted pathologist to a smitten politician across more than 75 years is the author's ability to conjure up something uncanny at the end. Though there are no mountains where Martel sets his stories, the elevation is sufficient to make a reader lightheaded and heavy-hearted in "The High Mountains of Portugal.''
By Yann Martel
Spiegel & Grau, 352 pp, $27
Steven G. Kellman is the author of "Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth'' and "The Translingual Imagination."