The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel
Yann Martel’s latest novel, The High Mountains of Portugal, is his best since Life of Pi — maybe even his best more generally. The story is broken into three interconnected novellas: Homeless, Homeward, and Home. The first follows Tomás, a young man in mourning after the sudden death of his lover, child, and father, who sets out in search of a 17th century artefact hidden in the High Mountains of Portugal. In the second, we meet Eusebio Lozora, a bereaved pathologist from Bragança who performs a metaphor-rich autopsy on a man brought in, again, from the High Mountains. The third and final part follows yet another grieving man, this time Peter Tovy, an ageing Canadian senator, along with his newly adopted chimpanzee, Odo, as the two travel to their new home in (you guessed it) the High Mountains of Portugal.
The three sections take place in the same fictional universe, and each intersects with the others in exhilarating ways; but the whole of which these sections are the parts is much more profoundly coherent if viewed from the perspective of the ideas they explore, namely, grief, faith, storytelling, and the meaning of death. Sadly, this is the point most of the book’s reviewers seem to have missed, managing to stumble repeatedly over the subtleties and symbolism of the text. But really, after the rather obvious chimp-related revelations at the end of section one, the only thing that ought to remain “entirely unclear” is how one could miss it.
The unfortunate thing about reviews like this is that they make their recommendations upon a reading shallow enough to ensure the book’s mediocrity. This is literature, after all: it’s intellectual and challenging in places, and, like his other works, it can abound with pleasures, scattered throughout the various layers of its meaning, if only one is willing to put in the effort. As Martel himself notes in an earlier work of his (101 Letters to a Prime Minister): “a literary novel is a novel that makes the reader work” — so get to work, this one’s worth it.
Photo: Shane Lin
The High Mountains of Portugal is published by Canongate Books at the hardback price of £16.99, for further information visit here.