Book Review: The High Mountains of Portugal
Yann Martel's The High Mountains of Portugal climbs the heights of surrealism but also leaves you to do some serious soul-searching at the top
Published: Thu 3 Mar 2016, 11:00 PM
Last updated: Fri 4 Mar 2016, 1:00 AM
There is much grief in Yann Martel's latest odyssey - the Man Booker prize-winning author seems to have a thing for taking his readers on very long journeys - and much toying with interpretations of faith too. The High Mountains of Portugal is a novel of novellas - three of them, to be precise, all set in different parts of the 20th century but delicately interconnected, nonetheless.
The first follows Tomas, who's been dealt the cruel triple blow of losing his beloved son, wife and father in the course of the same week. Grief consumes him, as his heart becomes "undone like a bursting cocoon" - yet "emerging from it came no butterfly, but a grey moth that settled on the wall of his soul and stirred no farther". He takes to walking backwards everywhere he goes, not as a sign of his grief, but as a mark of objection: a way of "turning his back on the world and on God", as he puts it. An obsession with an object he reads about in an old priest's diary takes him miles away from home to the High Mountains of Portugal (that, ironically enough, doesn't have mountains at all; only a vast, flat, treeless grassland). Here, perhaps, one can say it's not the desti-nation, but the journey, that counts - as Tomas attempts to charter an automobile that he has no clue how to pilot (this being 1904, when cars aka those 'noisy newfangled contraptions' were viewed with a mixture of suspicion and pure dread), often to comic effect.
Part two, however, was beyond surreal. An autopsy is described in revolting detail - but not before we are made to endure two (one could've been forgiven, but two!) unbelievably long, completely unnecessary monologues on sex and faith that lent zero value to the story. It boggles the mind - mine, at least - that an editor somewhere let 45 pages of. 'nothing' through. As the pontificat-ing dragged on and on, it only read like the author needed to air his theo-logical theories somewhere and so decided to plonk them in here. We haven't even got to the surreal bit yet, involving a pathologist pulling all manner of objects from a dead man's body parts and the latter's widow climbing (yes, climbing) into said body and being sewn alive into it, all the while declaring it home... A recurring question in the book is 'why not?', but by the end of this brain-scrambler, all I could ask was: why? At least I discovered surrealism was not my cup of tea.Part three redeems itself with the story of a Canadian senator, also a grieving widower, and his strange living arrangements, when he decides to pack his bags and head for (where else?) the High Mountains of Portugal. to live with a chimpanzee.
His family thinks he's mon-keying around - and understandably so. But Peter is consumed with caring for Odo, and his fear of the unknown - of never knowing what the ape is actually thinking or when he might turn on him - somehow seeps off the pages and becomes the reader's own. It's an edge that propels the story, even though the narrative itself could not be more relaxed, as man and beast explore quiet forests and sit in companionable silence - all the while rediscovering what it means to be 'home'.
It's a mixed bag, this book. Thankfully, Martel's poetic storytelling, which won him the prestigious award for Life of Pi, does shine through in The High Mountains of Portugal too - not to mention, his excellent observa-tions on life itself. What are we without the ones we love, he asks. There's only one way to answer that question, clearly: you've got to go along for the ride.