Book Review: The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

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The High Mountains of Portugal – Yann Martel (Knopf Canada, 2016)

If you’re familiar with Yann Martel’s work (and you probably are, because he wrote Life of Pi), you know that he does things a little unusually. He writes books with taxidermied animals as the main characters (read my review of Beatrice & Virgil) and he leaves you wondering about the truth of that tiger in the lifeboat. The High Mountains of Portugal fits in exactly with Martel’s established style and that’s a very good thing.

This novel contains three linked stories, each set in or connected to, you guessed it, the high mountains of Portugal. We begin at the turn of the twentieth century with a road trip in an early model Renault. Tomas is searching for a religious artifact he believes exists after reading a long-forgotten priest’s journal. While I found this to be the least enjoyable section (Tomas’ decision-making skills stressed me out), it’s still extremely well-written and Tomas is a strange but likeable character.

From there we move forward about fifty years to the novel’s shortest and most surreal section. Set in a morgue, Martel’s unique style excels here. Here he lies out before the reader the magical, the obscene, the strange, the tragic, and the beautiful. Like Life of Pi, we are left to decide for ourselves between the true and the metaphorical. And, indeed, to wonder if that distinction even matters.

The final section of the novel begins in Canada but takes us back to Portugal in the company of a retired politician and a chimpanzee. While this may send like a strange conclusion, it makes a perfect kind of sense within the novel and by the end I found myself oddly satisfied. Martel respects his readers greatly and a lot is left unanswered but in ways that don’t simply feel frustrating, like so many lesser writers leave their readers.

What draws these stories together – besides a chimpanzee, a location, and a few odd habits and stories – is a sense of loss, a search for love, and a longing for home. These desires are expressed differently by these three men but each feels real and powerful, something most of us can identify with.

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