Three bereaved men clinging to reality, the beautiful mountains of Portugal and a lot of chimpanzees; Yann Martel’s whimsical writing style returns in The High Mountains of Portugal. Best known for his novel Life of Pi, Martel has revealed a unique ability to weave some of life’s most complex questions into plots that tread the line between reality and dreams.
Martel divides the novel into three distinct tales, each of which follows a different grieving man and his journey along the road to recovery. In reading this book, it can be easy to dismiss Martel’s novel as disconnected and long-winded, but as Martel’s writing dances between actuality and surrealism, it becomes clear that he is simply bringing readers into the minds of these lost and confused men. The individual stories are connected in astonishing ways, with the characters’ grief brought to life through very real, emotive narration.
Martel’s first tale follows a grief-stricken Tomás who has literally turned his back on the world, forever walking backwards in objection to life and to God. Finding solace in a priest’s diary, written during the Portuguese colonisation of Africa, Tomas discovers a description of a very special religious object. Tomás makes it his duty to find the lost artefact, giving himself purpose and a temporary distraction from reality. Martel’s passion for the landscape of Portugal is made clear in his vivid descriptions and his writing effectively captures the deteriorating mind of Tomás. If you can push through the long-winded descriptions of automobile engines, you will discover Martel’s ability to make even the simplest things in life beautiful. The conclusion of this tale is a striking, emotive climax of accumulated grief and pain – a reward for the somewhat tedious engine-related descriptions.
The first story disguises themes of mortality, class and faith in a plot-driven tale. The second, however, confronts its philosophical concepts head on. Through different dialogues, Martel tackles the dichotomy of faith versus reason, to such an extent that this section is perhaps better described as a collection of life reflections rather than a literal journey. The tale centres around a pathologist, Eusobio Lozora, who finds beauty and order in the bodies he dissects. The dreamlike descriptions provide a surreal interlude within the book as Eusobio meets a stranger with a very odd request regarding the man she carries in her suitcase.
The High Mountains of Portugal concludes with a charmingly amusing tale of friendship between a Canadian senator and a chimpanzee. After losing his wife, Peter Tovy struggles to find purpose until he comes across Odo, a chimpanzee, in a sanctuary in Oklahoma. Instead of returning to live in Ottawa, the senator impulsively purchases the monkey and together they travel to the titular high mountains of Portugal. The chimpanzee provides Peter with a fresh passion for life as the senator leaves behind his structured lifestyle, finding new friends and peace in Portugal.
Another fantastic book from the brilliant Yann Martel, who manages to turn the simplest stories into wondrous, thought-provoking tales. Prepare to have your curiosities satisfied and your mind exhausted – a wonderful read.
The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel (Canongate, 2016)
Photo courtesy of Canongate