The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel (Spiegel & Grau, 2016)
Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)
Wilberforce by H.S. Cross (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2015)
STRONG NOVELS IMMERSE READERS in distinct worlds, with their own rules, cultures, and belief systems. The best novels refuse to supply pat answers or resolve problems completely, while still delivering enough closure to satisfy. They leave readers with a sense that within these worlds, mystery is at work. Three recent novels do just that, and although their settings are disparate—Portugal from 1904 to 1981, contemporary upstate New York, and England of 1925—they all turn on questions of faith.
Canadian novelist Yann Martel became a global literary sensation in 2001 with his unusual and enchanting Man Booker Prize-winning novel Life of Pi, about a boy named Pi whose father owns a zoo in Pondicherry. Pi is raised as a Hindu, but as a teenager becomes interested in Christianity and Islam and decides to practice all three religions, telling his parents, “I just want to love God.”
Pi’s faith and ingenuity are tested when the freighter he and his family are taking to emigrate to Canada sinks, and Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with an enormous tiger named Richard Parker, a beast he must manage as the boat drifts for months. The officials who eventually find Pi washed up on the beach don’t believe his story about the tiger, so he offers them an alternative narrative featuring only people, and asks them to choose which they prefer.
Martel told Scottish book critic Jennie Renton in 2005, “The subtext of Life of Pi can be summarized in three lines: 1) Life is a story. 2) You can choose your story. 3) A story with God is the better story.”
Martel’s new novel, The High Mountains of Portugal, explores this idea of people living life as a story with and without the palpable presence of God. It consists of three connected novellas with protagonists whose relationships with God are broken or muted for various reasons, mostly to do with grief. Like Life of Pi, Martel’s new book delves into humans’ relationship to animals, in this case, apes. Several characters reference Robert Ardrey’s observation from his 1961 book, African Genesis, “But we were born of risen apes, not fallen angels.”
In the first section, set in 1904, we meet Tomás, who works at the National Museum of Ancient Art in Portugal. His father, son, and de facto wife have died within days of each other, and he’s begun to walk backward, much to the consternation of his wealthy uncle. “What his uncle does not understand is that in walking backward, his back to the world, his back to God, he is not grieving. He is objecting.”
In reading the journal of a seventeenth-priest who worked on an island in the Gulf of Guinea, Tomás learns of an extraordinary Portuguese crucifix, now lost. Tomás vows to find it, and perhaps secure it for the museum’s collection. He borrows his uncle’s prized but cantankerous automobile and sets out on a comic picaresque journey.
Humor dissipates, however, when Tomás realizes he may have accidentally killed a child with the car. When he finally finds the crucifix, he’s bedraggled, at the nadir of all spiritual hope, and believes it depicts a crucified ape. “Strangled by loneliness,” he calls out, “Father, I need you!”—perhaps to a nearby priest, perhaps to the heavens.
The next section features Eusebio Lozora, a prayerful pathologist, working late to catch up on his paperwork one night in 1938. His wife arrives and interrupts his work. Maria is an “amateur theologian, a priest manqué, and she takes the parameters of life, her mortal coildom, her Jobdom, very seriously,” and she has stopped by to tell him she has “found the solution” to the conundrums presented by the miracles of Jesus and the novels of Agatha Christie.
In a fascinating monologue, she draws parallels between Jesus and Christie’s famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. “We realize then that it is not only [Poirot’s sidekick] Arthur Hastings who is obtuse…. We too have missed clues, misunderstood import, failed to seize the meaning. We too need Hercule Poirot to help us catch up. And so with Jesus. He was surrounded by so many Arthur Hastingses…. He too had to explain everything to his disciples so that they might catch up.” Some critics have been tetchy about this section—contemporary novels are not supposed to include long theological monologues that don’t advance the plot—but I found it surprising and insightful. As far as I was concerned, the plot could wait.
And why, Maria asks, does Jesus turn up so little in contemporary historical accounts? “Our knowledge of the flesh-and-blood Jesus all comes down to four allegorists…. What a casual, risky way of making one’s mark on history. Stranger still, it’s as if Jesus wanted it that way…. Why not impose himself like the great military Messiah Jews were hoping for? Why storytelling over history-making?” Maria concludes that Jesus wanted us to know him through stories: “A story is a wedding in which we listeners are the groom watching the bride coming up the aisle. It is together, in an act of imaginary consummation, that the story is born…. A story calls upon us as God calls upon us, as individuals—and we like that.”
The reader listens to Maria just as Eusebio does, dazzled, a little stunned, unable to get a word in edgewise—and then, rather mysteriously, she leaves him and us. Things then get even weirder. An elderly Portuguese woman arrives and insists that Eusebio perform an autopsy on the body of her husband, which she has with her in a suitcase. I’ll just say that surprising imagery emerges, echoing the first section.
The final section takes place in 1981. Canadian Senator Peter Tovy, of Portuguese heritage, is adrift after the death of his wife. A friend encourages him to go on a diplomatic trip to Oklahoma, of all places, for a change of atmosphere. There he visits the Institute for Primate Research at the University of Oklahoma, and forms a bond so intense with a chimpanzee named Odo that he offers to buy him on the spot. He then retires with the chimp to his native town in the High Mountains of Portugal.
After a lifetime spent doing, from Odo the senator learns the art of merely being. “That’s what Odo spends most of his time doing: being in time, like one sits by a river, watching the water go by.” We learn that the senator is related to the child Tomás killed in the first section, and as he explores his hometown, he discovers the crucifix. “What’s with all the apes?” Tovy’s son asks. “I don’t know what’s with all the apes,” Tovy replies. “All I know is that Odo fills my life. He brings me joy.”
The three sections of The High Mountains of Portugal show men in three stages of spiritual reckoning in the wake of grief—Tomás, feeling abandoned by God and abject in his suffering; Eusebio, confused and perhaps hallucinating; and Peter Tovy, who arrives at calm acceptance through communion with one of God’s creatures. In each case, the characters themselves can’t truly understand their own stories, or why they are compelled to act as they do. It takes a perspective outside of the myopic crush of their experiences—whether it’s that of a neighbor or family member commenting on the main character’s behavior, or the readers themselves, absorbing theses stories—to provide insight.
My college theology professor, Father John Dunne, explored the mysteries of God by studying life stories—fictional stories, nonfiction memoirs, and his own story. He used to say that you have an experience, but then you have to wait, and perhaps tell the story of that experience, to gain an insight into it. In one interview he said, “I’ve come to imagine the spiritual journey as a walking with God, a companionship with God on a journey from insight to insight.”
Like any good storyteller, Martel simply tells the story and doesn’t supply the insights about what the unusual occurrences in his novel mean. It’s up to the reader to derive her own insights from the mysteries, and as Maria’s belief about stories calling upon us as individuals suggests, each reader’s enlightenment will be distinct.
The High Mountains of Portugal is mysterious, funny, heart-wrenching, weird, and thought-provoking. It doesn’t check many of the boxes that contemporary fiction is supposed to—coherent, realistic plot, careful, methodic building of suspense, unified story line—and indeed, if its author were less famous than Martel, it may have had difficulty finding a publisher, but I found it thrilling, even if I didn’t entirely grasp what was with all the apes. Martel’s irreverence, playfulness, and blend of humor and tragedy as his characters grapple with God is refreshing.
Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot is likewise playful, innovative in structure, and eager to raise questions of faith. Mr. Splitfoot takes place in west and central New York, on the same fertile ground that gave rise to many new American religions during the Great Awakening of the nineteenth century, including Mormonism, Adventistism, the Shakers, and the Oneida Society. In 1848, the Fox sisters of Hydesville, New York, sparked the Spiritualist movement when they claimed to be able to communicate with a spirit named Mr. Splitfoot. The region is also known for its meteorites, and in the novel Hunt fashions an invented religion whose followers see significance and prophecy in the pattern of the meteorites and take Carl Sagan’s word as scripture.
Mr. Splitfoot begins in the fairly recent past at the Love of Christ! Foster Home, Farm and Mission near Troy, New York, an institution led by a self-styled fire-and-brimstone preacher named Father Arthur. Father Arthur fosters orphaned children who staff his farm while their benefit checks fund it. “No Walt Disney, soda pop, or women’s slacks pass his threshold. The children milk goats, candle and collect eggs, preserve produce, and make yogurt from cultures they’ve kept alive for years.”
Father Arthur is particular about the type of children he fosters. “The Father requests damaged wards, parents who are dead, retarded, in jail, all of the above. The more desperate the case, the more money the State gives him. ‘Got any ugly ones?’ The Father doesn’t want reunions or adoptions. He doesn’t even want scheduled visitations. He wants converts. He wants Jesus Warriors, foster kids for indoctrination, labor, and money to fund his mission.”
Ruth, with her scarred face, fits the bill. When she was five years old, her older sister was abruptly turned out of the home when she turned eighteen and no longer brought in a state check. Ruth was so traumatized that she didn’t speak until a new adoptee, Nat, arrived. The two formed a close and enduring bond and call each other “sister.” The book opens when Ruth and Nat are seventeen—when their days at the home are numbered.
Nat realizes he has a knack for communicating with the dead through an entity called Mr. Splitfoot. With Ruth as his assistant medium, he contacts the dead parents of their fellow foster kids, providing them comfort. Ruth “doesn’t name it Mr. Splitfoot in front of strangers who might imagine the devil…. For her, Mr. Splitfoot is a two that is sometimes a one, mothers and their children, Nat and Ruth, life and death.” Neither Ruth nor the reader knows for certain whether Nat is faking it.
Nat and Ruth’s flair for communicating with spirits catches the attention of an itinerant conman, Mr. Bell, who proposes to become their manager and organize paid séances in the nearby towns. Nat and Ruth agree to the scheme as a way to support themselves.
Mr. Bell notices that Ruth’s mysterious scar forms a perfect map of the meteorite landings in the region, and he’s not the only one. The middle-aged owner of a storage facility offers Father Arthur money in exchange for Ruth’s hand in marriage, and Arthur agrees. We eventually learn that the local sect that sees religious significance in the pattern of meteorite landings is determined to bring Ruth into its fold.
Hunt tells the story of Nat and Ruth in third-person chapters, alternating them with first-person chapters from the perspective of Ruth’s niece, Cora, set fourteen years later. Cora is bored with her work at an insurance company. She soon learns she’s pregnant, a circumstance that her disturbed, married boyfriend, Lord, doesn’t welcome.
Cora is fairly rational in all things except her choice of lover. “I am the child of a single mom,” she explains. “I don’t believe in real men. I also don’t believe in the lottery or God.” However, when Ruth turns up, mute, and beckons her to follow her on a long journey on foot, she does so without question, in part because it’s a way to escape Lord.
“Last time I saw Ruth she was seventeen,” Cora says. “She was young then, and she seemed so powerful and tough because looking at her, I wondered how she’d survived her life. How was she there, hair glistening like it had been oiled with star shine, looking like she could box down a mountain?” But now, Ruth is different. “No Nat. No beauty. No power. No shine. Skinny as death and even older…. She’s hollowed out. Miles and miles of hard road. Someone sucked the life from her face and neck.”
Ruth and Cora, who is growing increasingly large with child, walk for months toward a mysterious destination that eventually reveals how the story of Ruth and Nat ended and why Cora hasn’t seen her for fourteen years—and upends both the characters’ doubts and beliefs.
Just as with the monkey business in Martel’s novel, much remains unexplained, but that seems to be the point: how do people go on living, loving, and believing in the face of inexplicable phenomena? Hunt uses ambiguity to great effect. Which characters are genuine and which are deranged zealots? You’re forced to change your opinion several times. Hunt’s characters are quirky, by turns endearing, amusing, and terrifying, and the circuitous journey of Mr. Splitfoot is diverting.
Good fiction walks the line between clarity and ambiguity—just as God doesn’t reveal himself unambiguously to us, neither do strong characters or compelling stories. Writers such as Martel and Hunt lead readers to that place in the ocean where their feet just begin to lose contact with the sand, but never make them lose sight of the shore. The trick, for a writer, is to avoid being frustratingly obtuse. Too much ambiguity and mystery can chafe, while just enough keeps a reader coming back for more.
As forbidding as Father Arthur’s Love of Christ! is, if forced to choose, I’d attend that institution, where at least a spirit of love manages to flourish, rather than Saint Stephen’s Academy, the lower-tier British public school (which means private, in American terms) depicted in Wilberforce, the debut novel by H.S. Cross. The year is 1926, and thanks to the faltering leadership of the aging headmaster, students are running wild, hazing the youngest to the point of hospitalization and PTSD, instigating explosions, engaging in homosexual romps, neglecting their studies, and frankly, the cricket could be better.
Seventeen-year-old Morgan Wilberforce is at the center of the sadism and disorder, both as victim and perpetrator. As the novel opens, he is in the hospital wing after sustaining a shoulder injury when he recklessly hurled himself at an older boy who is the subject of his sexual fantasies.
Wilberforce is more straightforward than Martel and Hunt’s new novels, and theological questions are less thoroughly integrated, even though the book’s structure is based on the classic narrative of religious conversion.
Other characters say Wilberforce is charismatic and has something worth redeeming about him, but this was never really proved to me. As his teacher, John Grieves thinks, “Morgan Wilberforce…could be colossally lazy, willfully resistant to a gift for perception, flippant, and disobedient, yet John found him worthwhile, more worthwhile perhaps than any other boy at the Academy. He could not say why.”
Sure, Wilberforce is grieving over the death of his mother and still reeling from the psychosexual sadism he experienced as a younger student, but it wasn’t quite enough to earn my sympathy as he blows off his studies, peruses pornographic literature, plots sexual conquests, lies, and makes one bad and self-centered decision after another, all while justifying his abuses of others like a seasoned psychopath.
A perspective character doesn’t have to be likeable, but his consciousness has to be the most illuminating point of view available from which to tell the story. While the novel is an accurate rendering of the way some teenage boys operate—look at any fraternity for ample evidence—the world, and probably Saint Stephen’s, contains more interesting and nuanced teenage boys.
(I worked my way through grad school in part by tutoring college football players, and even the most knuckleheaded among them evinced more sensitivity to the world and other people than Wilberforce demonstrates. I think of a six-foot-two, 220 pound, eighteen-year-old left back from Texas who turned up for tutoring one day with a blackened eye and told a long and winding story about its origin that involved fisticuffs and the confiscation of his crossbow. Then he wrote a sensitive and beautiful essay on gender roles in M. Butterfly that his teacher graded an A. I could listen to this uncategorizable football player narrate a story all day long.)
Still, despite the main character’s limited perspective and lack of growth, Cross’s rich gifts as a writer are evident on every page. She has thoroughly researched and inhabited this world, down to its slang, rituals, and historical atmosphere. Saint Stephen’s feels completely authentic, and every word choice is apt. I much preferred Cross’s second narrator, John Grieves, a bachelor teacher who considers it his vocation to work with young men even though his remuneration is piteous and he receives little respect. He’s particularly drawn to Wilberforce, whom he encounters one night when he’s upset. Wilberforce confesses to “loving someone he oughtn’t,” and Grieves is touched by the boy’s trust and wants “more than anything to sort this boy out.”
Cross shows an admirable faith in the intelligence of her readers, never explaining the particular rules and customs of Saint Stephen’s, merely dropping us into this fully imagined world. Though I appreciate her trust, and in most cases I figured things out, I remained confused by several details.
The point that perplexed me most was Wilberforce’s lack of introspection about his bisexuality or apparent knowledge of the laws against homosexual behavior in England at the time. Near the end of the book, a character explains to Morgan that what he calls “mucking around with boys” is in fact termed “gross indecency.” Only thirty years before Wilberforce is set, Oscar Wilde was sent to prison for this offense. In a society in which homosexuality is so harshly punished, wouldn’t he try to hide it more, or at least worry more about being caught?
The punishments meted out at Saint Stephen’s also seem inconsistent—a homosexual love triangle that results in a suicide attempt and an accidental death is treated much more lightly than Wilberforce’s tryst with the teenage daughter of the local pub owner. It doesn’t seem believable that the administrators of an upper-class British school would care this much more about what one of their students did with a working-class girl than they would about homosexual entanglements leading to death among students.
It may be that the seeming inconsistencies are in fact accurate to the period, but since we remain so tightly bound by the point of view, Cross is never able to give us the kind of bird’s-eye context that might help us understand. She remains absolute in her commitment to limited third-person. We never leave the minds of Wilberforce and Grieves, and they, quite rightly, don’t reflect on things that are obvious to them. It’s a victory for form, but it sometimes came at the expense of my comprehension.
After deflowering the pub owner’s daughter, Wilberforce is sent away to be reformed by a retired bishop, and John Grieves suddenly departs as a perspective, to my chagrin. Thankfully, the bishop is another strong, lively, wise figure, and his spiritual interviews with Wilberforce are vigorous and gripping.
The bishop leads Wilberforce kindly but firmly toward introspection. He probes into why Wilberforce doesn’t change his ways after receiving so many beatings, and tells him, “[You] are far too fond of physical punishment…. You’ve come to rely on it as a cheap settler of accounts, a way to pay your debts without having to undergo repentance. It gives you the satisfaction of having been courageous, but it fails to touch you where it counts.”
The bishop talks good sense—he supplies insight into the mysteries of Wilberforce’s experiences that the boy hasn’t been able to muster himself. At times the bishop seems to reach Wilberforce, but then the boy relapses into bad behavior, and at the end of the novel, it’s an open question whether he will reform or return to his old ways. Can a novel be classed as a conversion story when the conversion attempt only begins around page three hundred and isn’t clearly successful? This final ambiguity seems right in one sense, however: after Wilberforce’s wild journey, instant reform would seem pat.
The rich worlds these three recent novels have created include characters who have fashioned their own religions, or their own takes on existing ones: Maria believes Agatha Christie can illuminate Christianity; Peter Tovy believes in the spiritual teachings of his chimpanzee friend; the characters in Mr. Splitfoot create their own religions out of séances, meteorites, and Carl Sagan; and Morgan Wilberforce, while rejecting Christian confirmation, believes his masturbation habits can control his immediate universe.
These novels offer distinct visions of the role faith can play in their characters’ lives. In Wilberforce, religion is a force that might keep them on the straight and narrow path and help them find some semblance of order and meaning in their lives, if only they’d heed its dictates. In Mr. Splitfoot, religion is do-it-yourself, charismatic, and potentially dangerous. In The High Mountains of Portugal, God, and what exactly God is up to when he metes out suffering, is the great mystery underlying everything—love, loss, joy, and grief. God is the mystery that gives rise to all other mysteries.