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Tuesday, 13 September 2016

walking backwards....

The following is my response to Yann Martel's  The High Mountains of Portugal.

A young man walks backwards through the streets of Lisbon. Looking backwards at what he had, what he was. What he has lost: his lover, his son. But moving inexorably forward.

It’s 1904.

[Elsewhere. Another time, another place. The young men who fought the so-called Great War rise up and walk backwards, to their homes, to their families. They are resurrected.] (1)

The young man — Tomás is his name — has never been in an automobile before. He is instructed to turn the steering wheel to the right to turn the car to the right. Turn it to the left to go left. But he’s puzzled. If the top of the wheel is going towards the right, the bottom is going to the left. At the right side, it is arcing downwards. At the left, upwards. How can a circular motion be described in linear directions?

[Elsewhere. Another time, another place. People believed the planet was flat. They drew flat maps, with dangerous places at the edges.]

To turn the car to the right [a quarter of a turn on a spinning planet orbiting a star] you turn the steering wheel clockwise.

[Such a curious direction: “clockwise.” Turning in the direction of time. The direction of the stars, the directions of prayers. Elsewhere. Another time, another place.] (2)

[Or “counter-clockwise.” Against time. Undoing time. Looking to the past. Moving/walking backwards.]

[But of course, the direction of the hands on a clock depends on where you are standing. From inside the clock, the clock runs backwards.] (3)

[Elsewhere. Another time, another place.]

The clock at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, from the inside looking out.
Photo credit to Joe Vlad, the blogger.


The young man — Tomás is his name — journeys in an automobile, north from Lisbon into the “high mountains of Portugal.” He moves from the city — the modern human habitat — back to the country where the amenities are few and primitive. He retraces the human journey: from the urban, to the agrarian, to the wild. 

As he moves across the earth he loses himself; he loses his humanity. He loses all regard for outward appearances, even the pretence of cleanliness. He becomes filthy. He stinks. He becomes infested with lice. He scratches himself raw. He douses himself with moto-naphtha. He catches on fire. He is naked, injured, and alone in the middle of nowhere, in a state so vile he is barely recognizable. Not that there is anyone there who would recognize him anyways. He has reached the farthest edge of human existence.

And then he finds what he is looking for. The next step backwards in time; in the human journey. The ape. The chimpanzee.

On a cross, lifted up. Resurrected.

Because going backwards in time is always about resurrection. Re-animating the dead. Finding the lost. [Elsewhere. Another time, another place.] 

Unless it’s about origin.

When we look back in time, we find, “Not a god — only an animal.”(4) This is our origin story.


An older man — Eusebio is his name — is visited in his office late at night by an even older widow. Eusebio is a coroner. The widow has brought him the body of her husband.

Upon opening the body, he finds that it, in turn, contains the body of a chimpanzee. The body contains all that it has ever been; its entire genetic code.


[Another time, the same place.]

An even older man — Peter is his name — adopts a chimpanzee to fill the empty space left in his life  by the death of his wife. He unwittingly retraces Tomás’s journey, ending in the high mountains of Portugal, taking the chimp with him.

He leads the chimp backwards to the beginning of the human journey. To the wild place where human and ape divided. To the place where their separate destinies converge back into a common origin.

Then the chimp leads Peter. He takes him to a tall standing rock; to the very top of it. 

Both man and ape peer over the edge of the known, and into the mythic. Into the mystic. Into the world as it was before our origins. They have reached the centre of the clock where time can pivot in both directions. The “still point of the turning world.” (5) The black hole at the centre of the universe. The place where the beginning inhabits the end.

[Every time. Everywhere.]


(1) As seen in the frame story created by David Fincher for the film version of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. A mysterious clock-maker is commissioned to make a clock for a train station in New Orleans. When it is finished, it is revealed that the clock runs backwards. The maker claims that this was so that we could “turn back time,” so to speak, and our war dead would rise from their graves and sail backwards across the ocean to come home.

(2) Tibetan Buddhists have prayer wheels — cylindrical spindles containing papers with prayers written on them.“The practitioner most often spins the wheel clockwise, as the direction in which the mantras are written is that of the movement of the sun across the sky.” —

(3) There is a photo which has been taken many, many times, of the view of Paris from the upper floor of the Musée d’Orsay (formerly the Gare d’Orsay; a train station). The viewer looks out through the glass walls of a large clock. From that vantage point, the hands of the clock appear to be running backwards.

(4) Yann Martel. The High Mountains of Portugal. Page 129.

(5) T.S. Eliot, from the poem, “Burnt Norton.”

“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, 
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”

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