Review: The High Mountains of Portugal

13 February 2016

The High Mountains of Portugal is Yann Martel’s follow-up to the critically acclaimed Life of Pi.  High expectations were understandable, but unfortunately his most recent work proves as anticlimactic and flat as the eponymous mountains themselves. Like Pi, The High Mountains is a meditation on love, faith, death and whatever the hell it all means. It’s split into three temporally distinct parts set over the span of the 20th century: ‘Homesick’, ‘Homeward’ and ‘Home’. Each is a discrete, though inter-related, story (unconvincingly) tied to the others through locale, recurring motifs and some far-fetched plot points. 

The first focuses on grief-stricken Tomas who takes up walking backwards after the deaths of his father, lover and son. In one of Portugal’s first automobiles (which, incidentally, he doesn’t know how to drive), he embarks on a mission to find the mysterious object mentioned in a diary that he has recently become obsessed with. Through an unlikely process of elimination he decides that this object must be in one of a number of small towns in Portugal’s ‘high mountains’. The reader is then dragged through the incredible absurdity of the drive, which involves numerous farcical contretemps and a sudden tragedy, before Tomas finds what he is looking for and the story comes to an abrupt end. Some sort of higher meaning is alluded to but is difficult to infer given such insubstantial content. 

‘Homeward’ follows a pathologist through a protracted conversation about religion and Agatha Christie with his wife. The discussion feels both didactic and contrived and takes a certain force of will just to read. Next, an autopsy is described in even more pedantic detail before the story is completed with a sudden leap into the surreal. This, juxtaposed against the dry banality of the preceding pages, is a breath of fresh air and may be some of the better writing in the book. However, it too is cut short to serve as any kind of recompense.

Finally (and it does feel like finally), ‘Home’ follows Senator Peter Tovy who, grieving his wife’s death, rescues a chimpanzee from a research centre and moves with it to his ancestral home in northern Portugal. It’s slow-moving prose, and the exploration of the human/animal relationship is much more superficial than in Life of Pi, but there is a pleasant and lolling gentleness to this final chapter that provides a sense of warmth that’s lacking in the rest of the book. This chapter is also where plot and theme seem to finally meet, reading more like an actual narrative rather than disparate scenes designed to surprise.

Often sliding into mere exposition, The High Mountains of Portugal relies on recurring devices and metaphor rather than coherence to capture the reader. Martel likes using animals to convey a deeper truth, that much was clear from Pi, but it is hard to see what truth he is aiming for here. His sumptuous magic realism is weighed down by too much allegory, leaving plot and actual meaning by the wayside. If you throw enough metaphors at a wall something’s bound to stick, and in places it certainly seems like Martel has taken this approach in his fourth novel.

There is some heart-rending beauty in the writing, and some instances of gorgeous surrealism, but this does little to appease a reader who has spent three hundred pages slogging through muddy metaphor and messy, messy plot.

 Book provided by Text Publishing

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