This is a story which takes place over several decades, starting in December, 1904. At the beginning we meet Tomas, who is on a mission to find a religious relic created by Father Ulisses in the seventeenth century. This mission masks the devastation Tomas suffered when he lost his lover and their son, as well as his father, all within one week. From that time onwards, Tomas has walked backwards wherever he goes. It is a protest against a fate so cruel that he feels his soul has perished. Finding the relic will be give him purpose, prestige as a curator at the Museum in Lisbon. It will give him a reason to live. Tomas starts out on his journey by visiting his wealthy uncle, the older brother of his father. His uncle has provided Tomas with an automobile, one of the first in the country, in which to make his journey. When Tomas realized he has to drive the contraption himself, he almost gives up the quest. But having nothing else to live for he carries on, struggling with the automobile and with the crowds who gather to see it. He encounters flat tires, fires, an ongoing search for fuel in a country not prepared for auto travel. He develops a ruse to keep the people from knowing he has an automobile. Whenever he approaches a town, he parks the vehicle outside the city, walks in and says he needs to buy moto-naptha for some horses infested with lice, the product being used mostly for that purpose. Poor Tomas suffers onward and achieves his quest, he finds the relic in a small town in the mountains of Portugal, but when his goal is almost within reach he accidentally kills a small boy with the horrid automobile and so his victory has caused him more grief than he can bear.
The next section of the book begins on the last day of December 1948, with Eusebio, a hospital pathologist in a town not far from Tomas’ church containing the relic. He is working late on his autopsy notes when his wife Maria knocks on the door of his study. Maria is very religious and she wants to explain to her husband how she has found a relationship between the writings of Agatha Christie, whom they both admire, and their Savior, Jesus of Nazareth. After his wife leaves, another knock comes on the door, this time of another Maria, who bears the body of her husband in a suitcase. As it turns out, they are the parents of the child that Tomas has accidentally killed with his uncle’s automobile. This second Maria requests that Eusebio perform an autopsy on her husband, even though she knows that he has died of grief for their only child.
In the last part of the book begins in 1981 with Peter Tovy, a Canadian politician. Peter has a happy life until his wife becomes ill and shortly thereafter dies. His son and daughter-in-law divorce and Peter becomes estranged from his family. While in the midst of his grief over his wife’s death Peter takes a trip to Oklahoma, to the zoo. But the zoo is unfortunately closed for renovation so the administrator tells him of a chimpanzee refuge not far away. Peter visits and is compelled to buy one of the mail chimps, a very laid back primate named Odo. Having made arrangements to pick up the ape in a couple of weeks Peter realizes that he will have to move from Canada and decides to go to Portugal, the country where he was born before his parents immigrated to Canada when he was two years old.
This was a very strange story, told over several decades but the author tells an intriguing story. There is much more to it than just odd behavior like walking backwards, or even buying a chimp while on vacation. There is grief throughout but also humor and imagination intertwined with simple lives in the High Mountains of Portugal