Booker Prize winning author of The Life Of Pi, Yann Martel, returned in February 2016 with his tenth book, The High Mountains Of Portugal, and as you’d expect from the man that brought us the journey of a young boy trapped in a lifeboat with a tiger, all is far from what it seems. It makes for a fascinating read, focusing on themes around religion, death, loss, family and our connection to the animal kingdom, with a less than conventional style.
It’s made up of three interconnected stories centred around the hilly high mountains of Portugal, taking us from the late 1930s to the modern day. Though the stories only have a loose binding thread on the surface, each of them are unified in delivering Martel’s cryptic crossword puzzle parables just below the water line, which you should be able to make out if you follow the murder mystery clues he so brazenly leaves for his readers.
The first of the three stories is that of a widower who has taken to walking backwards since his wife and son died and now sets off on a crazy journey of discovery to find a religious relic in his uncle’s flashy motor. Having tracked it down to a village in the high mountains of Portugal he sets off as a very reluctant first-time driver on what turns out to be his equivalent of forty days and forty nights in the wilderness.
So far, so Martel, but there are also surprises to confound you into questioning your position as he continues to pick at his themes, while still leaving you to form your own opinions in the subsequent stories and their own journeys of discovery. It makes for a challenging read, and what it lacks in plot it makes up for in talking points. We’re not going to give them all away here, but they do keep you on your toes as the depth of understanding starts to become clearer.
There’s a quirkiness and tangentially surreal nature to the three stories, which ties into Yann Marttel’s style of using more fantastical elements to land his killer blows. Through strange, unexplained and outlandish goings on he’s able to question everything from the essence of the New Testament, its relevance to the human condition, the impact of grief and the rationale for even the smallest glimmer of faith.
When you read the book yourself you’ll inevitably see your own truth in it, but for us it conveys the impact of grief with palpable weight, exploring the nature of death and loss, along with the varying coping mechanisms that humanity deploy to deal with the most terrible of situations. Along the way, he also explores the link from this to religion, asking whether or not faith has relevance because of its ability to help people deal with the loss of a loved one.
The High Mountains Of Portugal questions everything it contains without bias, a little like the Agatha Christie novels it’s to keen to hypothesise about. It has a very unique perspective and for this reason it’s definitely worth a read if you like your literature on the shaded side of the deep thinking spectrum.
Yann Martel, The High Mountains Of Portugal review: 4/5