The High Mountains of Portugal
Even before the stratospheric success of Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi, the Spanish-born Canadian was not a notably prolific author. His new novel, The High Mountains of Portugal, is only his second since Pi. If fans of that work have been feeling deprived, they will be happy to know his new work deals in many of the same fundamental questions of life, love, family and faith.
The High Mountains of Portugal comprises three parts, each set in a different time period, spanning much of the 20th century, with interconnecting narratives that draw the protagonists to the titular “mountains”. This region turns out to be neither excessively high nor remotely mountainous, but is instead home to sweeping grassland plains, isolated villages and, possibly, a religious object of astonishing power.
The novel’s first part features a grief-stricken nephew of a wealthy Lisbon merchant, who insists on walking backwards as a manifestation of his grief. He sets off in search of the mysterious object in an early automobile that terrifies him, with only the journal of a half-mad 17th-century Portuguese priest who was sent to minister to newly captured African slaves as a guide. Things just get stranger from there.
The subsequent parts hint at a greater connective narrative but Martel’s intricate plotting and set pieces are primarily vehicles for examining the big questions of the human condition. The countless threads of this extravagant smorgasbord of a novel are united in particular by an examination of the agony of grief. His depictions of romantic and familial love, religious faith, the pain of loss and, of course, the power of human–animal relationships, can be extraordinarily affecting. When a grieving mother, remembering lying in bed with her husband after the death of their beloved young son, recounts how their “toenails jabbed at each other like loose knives in a drawer”, the couple’s grief and anger is palpable.
But Martel is less able to bind these moments into a coherent whole, seeming to pepper the three parts with portentous recurring motifs and intertextual references as an alternative to making any sense. The plot, if one really exists, is messy. But it’s a mess that charms quite as often as it frustrates or stretches credulity, and at every turn Martel’s deft observations and quiet compassion for human suffering shine through. DV
Text, 352pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 30, 2016 as "The High Mountains of Portugal, Yann Martel ". Subscribe here.