Yann Martel, of Life of Pi fame, is back at it again. His penchant for producing esoteric allegorical novels is on show in The High Mountains of Portugal, as he bewilders and challenges his readers all over again.
The story is split into three micro-narratives spanning the 20th century. Firstly,we meet Tomas in turn of the century Lisbon. In true ‘Martelian’ fashion, Tomas walks everywhere backwards. Your brain starts ticking over… Ah Martel, you rascal, what does this tell us about the human condition? I’ll sit with this for as long as it takes! Two pages later, he tells you. Damn. It is Tomas’ only option to object. He sees others, life, God, and wishes to object to the cruelty he sees around him. It’s the last desperate attempt to have something on his terms. But that explanation is the only freebie Martell throws you. The rest of the novel requires a whole lot of thought to piece together.
After Tomas, comes Eusebio in 1948, a pathologist who performs an autopsy that seems to weave in and out of the surreal like his needle as he sews up cadavers. Lastly, we are introduced to Peter, a Canadian Senator who moves to Portugal in 1988 with an Ape named Odo. If your Pi-dar is pinging, calm down. It’s only a superficial resemblance.
And then the story ends. We don’t get the convenient explanation like we did in Pi as if we were Martel’s disciples, trusted with the secrets of the kingdom. In High Mountains, we are the crowds who are left to work it out. “Those who have ears, let them hear!” So how do we hear? What do we do with these stories? The links are present but cryptic, and every review of the book seems to summarise the plot and conveniently forget to explain what they thought Martell was getting at. Amongst the Lost Boys, our interpretations varied wildly. Crazily, it even feels like Martel doesn’t quite know what it’s getting at when he speaks about the book. But that’s PoMo for you, MoFo. Interpretation is what you make of it! But for what it’s worth, here’s one interpretation which you can take or leave: Life is ultimately devoid of purpose or hope. It’s a grim existence where one must walk backwards to avoid it, where suffering defines your character, and where fulfilment is as elusive as an Iberian Rhinoceros charging across the high mountains of Portugal.
It’s certainly worth reading this as you move throughout Portugal. From the earliest page, you can re-trace Tomas’ journey through Lisbon, and the description takes on a whole new level when you’re literally on the same street as the character. And in that regard, it’s worth reading even if you aren’t someone who likes to dive into something tricky. It’s beautifully written and heart wrenching all at once.
But if you find yourself walking through the (not so) High Mountains of Portugal, and you’ve figured it out, do let us know. Probably let Martel know too. He’s just as in the dark as you…
'In Portugal the sunshine is often pearly, lambent, tickling, neighbourly. So too, in its own way, is the dark. There are dense, rich, and nourishing pockets of gloom to be found in the shadows of houses, in the courtyards of modest restaurants, on the hidden sides of large trees. During the night, these pockets spread, taking to the air like birds. The night, in Portugal, is a friend.'