Author: Yann Martel
Find the author: Website, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: February 2nd 2016
Source: Finished copy from Penguin Random House Canada (thank you!)
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • “Fifteen years after The Life of Pi, Yann Martel is taking us on another long journey. Fans of his Man Booker Prize–winning novel will recognize familiar themes from that seafaring phenomenon, but the itinerary in this imaginative new book is entirely fresh. . . . Martel’s writing has never been more charming.”—Ron Charles, The Washington Post
In Lisbon in 1904, a young man named Tomás discovers an old journal. It hints at the existence of an extraordinary artifact that—if he can find it—would redefine history. Traveling in one of Europe’s earliest automobiles, he sets out in search of this strange treasure.
Thirty-five years later, a Portuguese pathologist devoted to the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie finds himself at the center of a mystery of his own and drawn into the consequences of Tomás’s quest.
Fifty years on, a Canadian senator takes refuge in his ancestral village in northern Portugal, grieving the loss of his beloved wife. But he arrives with an unusual companion: a chimpanzee. And there the century-old quest will come to an unexpected conclusion.
The High Mountains of Portugal—part quest, part ghost story, part contemporary fable—offers a haunting exploration of great love and great loss. Filled with tenderness, humor, and endless surprise, it takes the reader on a road trip through Portugal in the last century—and through the human soul.
Hi all, today I have a review from my fantastic husband, Evan, of an adult fiction book by acclaimed writer Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi. Evan reads a lot of sci-fi and literary fiction (mostly Philip Roth and other contemporary authors), and he and I both enjoyed Life of Pi (the book AND movie) so he’s in the perfect position to take a closer look at this latest release from this literary giant. Please welcome Evan!
Review: The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel
With The High Mountains of Portugal, Life of Pi author Yann Martel delivers another beautifully written tragi-comic adventure story, with imagery drawn from humankind’s relationship with nature, faith, and animals. Where Life of Pi featured a tiger, each of The High Mountains of Portugal’s three sections features a chimpanzee. Like Life of Pi, the themes are heavy, but the tone is (mostly) light-hearted and fun.
On an intellectual level, Martel seems very interested in deconstructing traditional narrative conventions and structures. Unfortunately, these experimental and symbolic elements of The High Mountains of Portugal, while clever, ultimately detract from the otherwise excellent stories and characters.
The first story – titled “Homeless” – is a slapstick tragedy about Tomás, a museum curator who, within the course of a week, loses three members of his family. The grief is so overwhelming that, rather than allowing himself to feel it, he decides instead to “object” to his situation by literally turning his back on the world, and on God (I won’t say exactly what I mean by that because it’s a fun reveal). Tomás, in search of – meaning? closure? revenge? – goes on an adventure to the high mountains of Portugal in a clunky, newfangled automobile that causes far more problems for him than it solves. Tomás and his car reminded me of Buster Keaton and his train in the great silent film, The General
I don’t want to spoil it by saying whether Tomás ends up finding what he’s looking for in the high mountains of Portugal – or how a chimpanzee gets involved. But “Homeless” was by far my favourite part of the book, perhaps because its symbolic and “weird” elements always served to progress Tomás’ journey and shed light on his particular experience of grief. After finishing “Homeless”, my expectations for the rest of the book were high.
The second section – “Homeward” – takes its inspiration not from silent films, but from Agatha Christie mysteries. It features an incredible monologue about how the New Testament is really a murder mystery, and it has a twist that very cleverly flips magical realism on its head. However, it never comes together as its own story, and it seems to exist mainly as a way for Martel to throw in some images and ideas that tie the other two stories together.
The final section – “Home” – has perhaps the most compelling characters in the book: Peter, a Canadian senator who has recently lost his wife, and his best friend – a chimpanzee named Odo whom he adopts from a cruelly run animal sanctuary. “Home” starts out as one of the best and most realistic examinations of a human/animal friendship that I’ve ever read. Unfortunately, as it progresses, the focus moves away from the characters, and shifts instead into all of the symbolic connections to the first two stories.
The High Mountains of Portugal is an entertaining and thoughtful novel with memorable characters and interesting themes. But Martel works too hard to justify his three-part structure, as he obsesses over the details that connect the three stories together. I simply lost interest in the parts that served only to describe how the plots were intertwined. “Hey, there’s the suitcase from the other story!” “Hey, I guess this character is that other character’s uncle!” “Hey, people still remember that guy with the weird car!” etc.
Each story explores the human experience of grief, and the different ways that we deal with personal tragedy. And each story takes place, at least in part, in the high mountains of Portugal, and in some way features a chimpanzee. Isn’t that enough of a connection? The additional plot contrivances and more mystical implications were just unnecessary, and ended up grinding the stories to a halt rather than advancing them.
Human/Animal Friendships – This is a really tough theme to explore without falling into overly sentimental clichés (see: the Beethoven movies, Turner and Hooch, etc.). The more I think about it, the more I believe that Homeward is the best human/animal friendship story that I’ve ever read. What other stories have you read that actually explore this theme in a realistic and satisfying way?
Multi-Part Sagas – I love the idea of combining multiple short stories in a way that makes them more than the sum of their parts. Cloud Atlas was a great example of that for me. While the High Mountains of Portugal didn’t quite satisfy me in that regard, I really love the concept.
Humans Vs. Technology: The Hilarious Struggle – So, there’s nothing I find more frustrating (when it happens to me) and hilarious (when it happens to others) than people’s attempts to use technology to make life more convenient, but actually creating the opposite effect. The story of Tomas and his automobile is like last century’s version of this classic YouTube video.
Sad Clowns – Maybe this is weird, but one of my favourite genres is depressing comedy. And I don’t mean dramas that also happen to be funny (“dramedies”). But rather, comedies that happen to deal with extremely heavy themes. Kurt Vonnegut was the master; Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, of course; Robert Altman movies like California Split, Nashville, and M.A.S.H; Emir Kusturica’s amazing movie Underground; and anything by Louis C.K. (Louie, Horace and Pete, Baskets). In its best moments, High Mountains of Portugal fits in this category.
Book Theme Song:
This mournful and off-kilter cover of the Beatles’ “Help” by Brazilian tropicalia artist Caetano Veloso fits nicely with Martel’s writing. It’s both light and dark, quirky but grounded, and ultimately life-affirming.
The Final Word:
The High Mountains of Portugal has compelling characters, beautiful writing, and some well-explored themes. Unfortunately, its reach exceeds its grasp when it goes down more surreal and experimental paths. I would definitely recommend The High Mountains of Portugal to anybody who is already a fan of Martel, but for those who haven’t read him before, I would recommend Life of Pi instead.
Thanks, Evan! The High Mountains of Portugal is out in bookstores now. Will you be reading it? Have you read/watched Life of Pi or any of Yann Martel’s other work? Let us know in the comments, and do let Evan know if you liked his review!