The High Mountains of Portugal is not a traditional novel but instead a set of three interconnected tales that take place over the course of a century. Echoing elements from one other, the stories explore the spectrum of death and grief. They also contain Martel’s hallmark contemplations around storytelling and faith, which we know so well from his Booker Prize winning novel, The Life of Pi.
The first story opens on a young man named Tomás in his hometown of Lisbon. He uncovers the records of a mysterious religious artefact in the diary of one Father Ulisses and sets off on a quest to find it. This is not only spiritual journey, undertaken after the recent deaths of his lover and his son, but also an endeavour to find solace int eh wake of his loss. En route, he draws bewildered stares from the locals due to his unusual habit of walking backwards. He also attracts attention with his four-horsepower, four cylinder Renault, a never-before-seen phenomenon, which his wealthy uncle has loaned him for the trip. As he drives inexpertly through the landscape, both Tomás and the car become more and more broken-down until both collapse on arrival at the eponymous High Mountains.
The second section of the book takes place in Lisbon 30 years later. Eusebio Lozora has two strange visitations. Firstly, his late wife appears in his pathology lab. He listens attentively and affectionately to her as she muses over the narrative similarities between the bible and an Agatha Christie novel. The story has the overall feel of a pleasantly meandering, vaguely intellectual daydream. A second visitor arrives late at night with the corpse of her late husband in her suitcase. She has carried the body all the way from the Portuguese mountains in order that an autopsy might be performed to determine how he ‘lived’. The autopsy is described in grizzly, clinical detail, and, in a sudden burst of the fantastic, feathers, vomit, silk ribbon and finally a baby ape are pulled from inside the chest of the dead man.
Last in the series, we visit Peter Tovy, a Canadian senator and our third widower. After a visit to Monkeyworld, he adopts an ape called Odo and decides to relocate with him to the Portuguese mountains. We already know Martel is an accomplished writer on the subject of the relationship between man and animal and the story of Peter and Odo is clearly where the author feels most at ease. The narration is more relaxed, less elaborate, and the elements of farce and shock, which are prominent in the two previous tales, are less forced. As we read through this final tale, we arrive at climax of the Martel’s skill.
On the whole, the book has divided critics. Some feel as if the endings have been left too open; others take issue with the overall plausibility of the stories. However, Martel is a surrealist writer and in the fictional world of magical realism, you get to make up the rules. Martel has never dealt in anything but the miraculous and wondrous. Without apology, this is his medium.
The abandoned endings of each tale, on the other hand, are a realistic portrayal of grief. Each story explores a different moment in mourning. We leave Tomás at a point of hysteria, Eusebio Lozora in denial and Peter trying to build a new world around his sorrow, cutting himself off from his former life. The point is, no matter where the characters lie on the spectrum of mourning, they do not feel themselves to be whole, and thus their stories are incomplete. It is rare and refreshing to find writing on tragedy that shies away from the dramatic, putting the emphasis instead on human tenderness.
Overall, this is an enjoyable read which gets better as you go along. Martel writes his magical worlds with coercive charm and these three stories show off his unique ability as an author to take sprawling and complex issues and reshape them into simple, attractive fable and allegory without reducing their emotional clout.
By Emma Nuttall
The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel, Canongate, £16.99