A review of The High Mountains of Portugal, by Yann Martel
BY SALMAN QURESHI
In 2001, Yann Martel released the commercial and critical success Life of Pi: a story about faith, storytelling, and surviving. Now, Martel has returned to explore these narrative grounds once more with his latest novel, The High Mountains of Portugal. The novel is split into three parts: Homeless, Homeward, and Home. These titles serve not only as indicators of the novel’s major theme, finding a place to call home, but also separate three tales spanning the 20th century.
The protagonist of the first part, Homeless, is named Tomas. After losing his father, the woman he loved, and his son in a single devastating week, Tomas is compelled by his grief to travel to The High Mountains of Portugal to find a cross left behind by a long dead priest. In the second part, Eusebio, a pathologist and avid reader of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries, performs a surreal autopsy. And finally, Peter, a Canadian Senator, buys a chimpanzee named Odo after the death of his wife and moves to Portugal. Although these tales may seem disparate, they build upon each other, using symbols, themes, and ideas that span all three stories.
Thus, The High Mountains of Portugal is more than the sum of its parts—more than its individual tales. For this reason, Tomas, Eusebio, and Peter’s tales are eccentric. Tomas, for example, walks backwards everywhere, Eusebio hallucinates a conversation with his wife where she concludes that Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries are comparable to the Gospels on a narrative level, and two years of Peter’s life pass playfully wrestling with a chimpanzee. These men are broken by their grief, and although these scenes are powerful within their respective parts, together they reveal a larger picture that Martel is trying to portray: All three men cannot move forward without looking back, they all hear their dead wives talking to them, defining their actions, and they all discover that “We are risen apes, not fallen angels,” that is, that humans have an undeniable bond with animals.
It is a testament to Martel’s ability to craft images with prose that he largely succeeds in relating these themes. But this concoction of philosophy, religious parable, and fiction generate a lot of strangeness in his plot, and at times Martel struggles to maintain the believability of his story while forwarding his message.
In a vividly described scene, Eusebio performs an autopsy which is entirely fantastical. Upon cutting open an eighty-three-year-old man, Eusebio finds that “Filling Rafael Castro’s chest and abdomen, lying compactly in peaceful repose, are a chimpanzee and, wrapped in this chimpanzee’s protective arms, a bear cub, small and brown.” Martel does not supply, as he did in Life of Pi, the choice between “the story with animals or the story without animals.” The reader is thus left with a metaphor made real with little understanding of how he/she got there. Martel makes little effort to incorporate this new reality into his novel and counters the possibility that the scene was a product of Eusebio’s grief in Peter’s story. Certainly the reader is left with a powerful and disturbing image connecting man and animal, but it is not seamless with the rest of the novel; instead, it stands out—it is hung on a wall with a gilded frame.
The High Mountain’s of Portugal seems like it should be a revelation and, indeed, the story reads at times like a parable. But Martel’s novel is much like its title. The High Mountains of Portugal, the novel’s geographic namesake, are actually hilly plains, as Peter discovers in the third part: “He is puzzled. Where are the mountains? He wasn’t expecting soaring, winter-clad Alps, but he didn’t expect an undulating barren savannah either, its forests hidden away in valleys, without any peaks anywhere.” Things are not as they first appear in Martel’s novel, and this is both it’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Rather than walking the divide between fantasy and reality, between a comforting home and terrible grief, Martel blurs the two to mixed effect. Individual scenes shine out, reminding us what Martel is capable of doing. I will carry the image of the blonde child, bloody and broken on the dirt road long after I have left the High Mountains, and I can still see the expression on Odo the chimpanzee’s face, as he holds Peter, looking at the sunset.
The High Mountains of Portugal is more than the sum of its parts, but it is still not whole. Martel sacrificed much of his novel for his message, and after I had finished, I still wanted to hear the rest—“the better story,” as Pi would say.