Book of the week: The High Mountains Of Portugal by Yann Martel


Book of the week: The High Mountains Of Portugal by Yann Martel

The author of Life Of Pi returns with a novel on grief, faith and chimps

By Vatsala Chhibber  February 3rd, 2016

The High Mountains Of Portugal by Yann Martel

Cliffsnotes: Three men deep in grief and separated by decades bridge the novel’s loosely connected stories. In ‘Homeless’, Tomas, a museum worker in 1904 Lisbon, sets out to find a crucifix that could challenge the foundations of Christianity; in ‘Homeward’ a pathologist is visited by a woman carrying her dead husband in a suitcase; and in ‘Home’, a newly-widowed senator escapes to an outlying village with his new companion, a chimpanzee.  

Get a taste: In the first part of the novel, Tomas’ uncle worries about his nephew’s strange manner of grieving:   

“Already Tomas’ mother had died when he was young. Now his father. To be so assailed by tragedy! Some people never laugh again. Others take to drink. My nephew, in his case, chose to walk backwards. It’s been a year. How long will this bizarre grieving last?”

What his uncle does not understand is that in walking backwards, his back to the world, his back to God, he is not grieving. He is objecting. Because when everything cherished by you in life has been taken away, what else is there to do but object?

Author 101: The philosophy major only took to writing at 27; Martel spent his early twenties working odd jobs and travelling without purpose. During a visit to India, he began work on what would become the Booker-winning Life Of Pi (2001). It was followed by Beatrice And Virgil (2010), an allegorical novel about the Holocaust starring a monkey and a donkey. It met with prickly reviews (“pretentious”, “humourless”, “perverse”) and limited praise. Of his latest, Martel says, “I’m interested in how people deal with grief and suffering beyond the immediate, emotive response. How do you live with a universe that doesn’t deliver entirely the happiness that you want?”

ELLE verdict: It takes some effort to love Martel’s symbolism and allegories with as much enthusiasm a second (or even third) time, and the three stories suffer mostly from their trite connections. But when his no-frills narrative is interrupted by the unusual – a man who walks backwards to protest against life or the woman who draws comparisons between Agatha Christie novels and the Gospels  – the result is mostly rewarding. If you’re longing for some of that magic from Life Of Pi, ‘Home’, the final part of the novel, comes closest. The relationship between the senator and his newly-bought chimpanzee, teamed up for a new beginning in a Portuguese village, is awkward and wonderful, and might make you reconsider your choice of pet. 

Similar reads: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, The Famished Road by Ben OkriThe Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

The High Mountains Of Portugal (Penguin Random House) is out on February 11