The High Mountains of Portugal by Jann Martel

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Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth

There was going to be a novel about Portugal much earlier. In Life of Pi, the author within the story tells the reader how he had gone to India with the intention of writing a novel set in Portugal, but abandoned this idea when he came across the tale of Pi. Over a decade later, Yann Martel returns to Portugal as the setting for his storytelling, and much seems to be carried over from the novel that originally postponed the writing of the Portugal novel. Perhaps not surprisingly, The High Mountains of Portugal does not fall very far from its predecessor: themes of spirituality and the relation of humans to animals are carried over from India to Portugal. Intriguingly, at the end of Life of Pi, Pi asks his investigators: ‘If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for?’ The High Mountains of Portugal poses the very same question.

Set in the eponymous High Mountains of Portugal, Martel’s latest brings together three lives through their seemingly tenuous connections to the remote grassy uplands of Portugal, exploring deeper questions of life and death on the way. The protagonists of the three stories that make up the novel are spread across space and time and never meet each other, but Martel has ingeniously interwoven their tales, both thematically and causally through elaborate links.

The High Mountains of Portugal revolves around three men all grappling with grief after losing their wife, and – here the reader finds themselves asking the believability question– having a chimpanzee enter their life in one way or another (a crucifix, an autopsy, and an actual animal are involved – but any more elaboration would give away the fine links Martel draws and that are for the reader to discover). The reader is first introduced to Tomás at the turn of the 20th century. After losing his wife and son to disease, he has taken to walking backwards, and is regarded as something of a strange feature in the street. The grief-driven life of Tomás is propelled onto a combination of road trip and spiritual search when he finds a mention of a crucifix in a 17th century diary which, if found, would revolutionalize the way people view Jesus, Christianity, and religion as a phenomenon. With only the vaguest of mentions of the crucifix’s location somewhere in the High Mountains, Tomás sets on a riggedy journey in a car he can barely drive in remote lands he can barely navigate.

Lapa’s lapping waters, the breathtaking Tagus, open up to the right in a burst of light, but Tomás does not have time to appreciate the sight as they hurtle through the urban density of Lisbon in a blur of wind and noise. They spin so fast around the busy roundabout of Praça do Duque da Terceira that the vehicle is projected, slingshot-like, down Rua do Arsenal. The hurly-burly of the Praça de Comércio is no impediment, merely an amusing challenge. Indistinctly, Tomás sees the statue of the Marquis of Pombal standing in the middle of the square. Oh! If only the Marquis knew what horrors his streets were being subjected to, he might not have rebuilt them. On they go, onward and forward, in a roar of rush, in a smear of colour. Throughout , traffic of every kind – horses, carts, carriages, drays, trams, hordes of people and dogs – bumble around them blindly.

But beyond the comic effect of a man’s struggle with a machine, there lie bigger, spiritual and existential, questions:

We are random animals. That is who we are, and we have only ourselves, nothing more – there is no greater relationship. [–] We are risen apes, not fallen angels

The next story, thirty years on, is that of pathologist Eusebio in Lisbon in 1938. There is no physical adventure this time. Eusebio is sitting in the safety of his own office when his late-night work is interrupted by two visitors: his wife – or the image of her, as the reader later learns – and a peasant woman from the High Mountains with the body of her husband in a suitcase. What follows is a tour de force of spiritual reasoning as Eusebio’s wife launches into a monologue of how the Bible finds its modern reincarnation in popular murder mysteries and how Agatha Christie is, in fact, a modern-day evangelist:

Her appeal is as wide and her dissemination as great as the Bible’s, because she is a modern apostle, a female one – about time, after two thousand years of men blathering on. And this new apostle answers the same questions Jesus answered: What are we to do with death? Because murder mysteries are always resolved in the end, the mystery neatly dispelled. We must do the same with death in our lives: resolve it, give it meaning, put it into context, however hard that might be.

The peasant woman takes Eusebio on a different kind of, more physical search, as he is forced to perform an autopsy on her husband to determine not why he died but how he lived; the spiritual is now found in flesh.

The reader is finally transported to 80s Canada where Peter, a senator grieving the recent death of his wife, purchases a chimpanzee on the spur of the moment. From there, an unlikely friendship – some would say romance – develops between man and ape. The pair moves to the High Mountains to find better living conditions for the chimpanzee; what they find is not only space and warm weather but closure, not only for Peter but also for Eusebio, Tomás, and all the other characters that have been intervowen into their stories.

True to his style, Martel tells his stories with a nearly physical power: the storytelling frustrates, surprises, fascinates, and disgusts the reader. One of the most powerful, even grotesque, scenes is when Eusebio performs an autopsy on the husband in front of his wife, recounting with sharp coolness the procedure to be undertaken:

I will start by cutting a Y-shaped incision in your husband’s chest, using a scalpel, starting at the shoulders and meeting over the sternum, then heading down over the abdomen to the pubic mound. You will notice that subcutaneous fat is very yellow, and muscles look very much like raw beef, very red.

From the comedy of Tomás’s attempts of controlling a car to the flow of spiritual reasoning and the morbidity of pathology, Martel does not fail to touch all the senses of the reader. The High Mountains grow out of the page and reach out to the reader.

There are also undertones of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude to be heard throughout Martel’s narration. It is precisely the magical realism of these novels that allows Martel to use the chimpanzee as a recurrent theme, exploring how it interacts with grief and spirituality. Without questioning the limits of believability, these explorations would be much reduced; the interaction of the magical and the mundane is the hallmark of Martel’s story telling, and an excellent feat at that.

The three parts of the novel are named Homeless, Homeward, and Home. As Martel wrote in Life of Pi, ‘life is a story’. In The High Mountains of Portugal, this story, a story of life, is told through three different people and eras, from setting out into homelessness to finding closure, and home.

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Anna is a bookworm, linguistics student and student journalist.

Yann Martel, The High Mountains of Portugal (Canongate, 2016) 978-1782114697,  352 pp., hardback.

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