The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

There can’t be many people out there who have not read Yann Martel’s unique fictional offering Life of Pi or at least, you will have seen the Ang Lee film with the boy in the boat with the tiger. And I have to say that I did enjoy Life of Pi although it didn’t make me want to seek out more of Martel’s fiction. This, in hindsight, may have been a mistake.

I picked up The High Mountains of Portugal on a whim when at my local library, looking for mild Manga (if indeed there is such a thing) with my 10 year old. It just so happened that Japanese comic books are next to the “M” row of fiction and my eye was drawn to Martel. I wasn’t there for books for me, having already put on hold half of the library’s collection after reading Rita Leganski’s reading list at the end of The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow. And I always have plenty of book fodder on the shelves at home to last my lifetime and maybe that of three or four others.

Anyway, for whatever reason, I was drawn to it and I am thoroughly glad that I was.

After beginning this book, I was a little concerned that once again I had stumbled upon something that was off-the-wall enough for it to be a troublesome read – one that I would have to decipher, plough through, persevere with and this is because of the way that it opens.

Tomás is a man in mourning and in protest at his loss and the way that he has been treated by the universe, he has decided to walk everywhere backwards. I’m not really sure how this helps him in assuaging his grief and Martel does offer an explanation but even after this authorly intervention, I didn’t really feel like it gave me the resolution I needed for it to sit right in my mind.

However, it transpired on continuing to read that it didn’t matter. I was, luckily, able to gloss over this irritation as the rest of the book was brilliant and I raced my way through it in less than two days to find out what happened.

The book does not concern itself solely with Tomás: he is the character to whom the first part of the book refers, the part entitled “Homeless”. There are two further sections called “Homeward” and “Home”, distinct in themselves but also linked by certain themes and motifs. I will come onto that later.

Tomás has decided that he is to go on a pilgrimage of sorts which will be a welcome distraction from his daily wrestle with loss, stimulated into this by a book which he found in the archive where he works. In this book are the diary entries and musings of a priest from Africa who was sent there from Portugal on a Christian mission. It transpires on reading this book that an artefact created painstakingly by the priest was brought back from Africa and now resides in a small church somewhere in the high mountains of Portugal. Tomás is determined to find it and is helped on his mission to accomplish this by his wealthy uncle, owner of multiple motor cars.

Tomás is only allowed to take so much time off work and so needs a speedier way to travel than horse and cart, this being the turn of the twentieth century and so is one of the first people to take a motor car into the rural areas of Portugal. This comes with a whole load of interesting problems and Martel takes what could have been a tediously repetitive journey and makes it into something that describes the difficulties faced by the first drivers, which I found quite educational. He also great at describing the encounters that Tomás has with villagers en route who are naturally curious about this strange noisy contraption.

He makes it to the mountains although it is a difficult trip for him on many levels. Whether he is successful in his quest is really too much to reveal in this review.

The next section “Homeward” tells the story of a pathologist who is working late on New Year’s Eve when his work session is interrupted by two visitors, both named Maria. The first stays and discusses the merits of Agatha Christie’s fiction with him, predominantly about death but interestingly, Maria creates an argument for them being novels of faith, imbued with Christian teachings in similar fashion to the Gospels of the New Testament. An interesting argument and one which is well crafted by Martel through the theorising of his character. Perhaps the idea is that even in the darkest tales, the presence of God can enlighten.

The second Maria arrives with a suitcase full of an item that she wishes the pathologist to examine. She is an old woman from the high mountains of Portugal. She has seen love and loss in her lifetime and being close to death herself, is keen to see the secrets that are perhaps still hidden to her about life and its clandestine machinations.

I found this section incredibly moving even though it is surreal for the most part but I think this is what Martel is so good at: he places you in a situation which feels bizarre and then, unerringly, draws out the emotion from it, making you empathise with a character even though the situation you are witnessing is entirely alien to you, maybe even a little macabre and certainly unsettling.

I like the way he does this. It is unnerving but also strangely comforting.

Finally, section three: “Home”. This tells the story of an Ottawa senator, now a widower, who leaves his political life on a whim to move to his ancestor’s home in, you’ve guessed it, the high mountains of Portugal where he lives with an ape he rescues from a facility he visits quite casually in Ohio whilst on a political visit.

Yes, you read that right.

Odo is a chimpanzee who calmly turns his eyes to Peter, our Canadian politician as he gazes at Odo in his cage suspended from the ceiling, and a timeless connection is made, one which Peter acts upon impulsively and against all rational consideration, transporting himself and his ape to a small village that he believes his family came from when they first immigrated to Canada.

It may be a good time to mention that all of the stories have an element of chimpanzee in them and this is for you to discover. There are also fleeting mentions of other things and like a mystery, all of these motifs are discovered to be important by the end of the book, meaning that ideas that seem to be scattered and have limited importance, briefly mentioned, become integral.

I love this aspect of this book, looking for the threads that permeated all stories. Like Cloud Atlas, there are echoes of the previous sections as well as references to future ones so that there is a sense that all is linked, all is part of a greater whole and this also ties in with the idea of ancestry within humans and a sense of ancestry with primates too.

Martel is suggesting that we are all part of a cohesive whole and I have to say that this book left me feeling good, if that’s not too trite. It moved me to tears in parts; it made me smile in others; it left me comforted at the end, despite the rather abrupt way it ended. I think this comes from the sense that things will continue in much the same way as they always have and much joy can be gleaned from a connection to the world in which we live as well as giving a nod towards our past.

And so Martel has done it again: he has created a book which is weird, there’s no denying it, surreal even and hoodwinked the reader into believing that there is not much here with which to relate, it being a bizarre but entertaining story when actually it is deeply human which will expose your emotions, making you feel and provoke deep thought. Or, at least, it did for me.

A great book and one which I may seek to put on my bookshelf as a keeper.

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