The High Mountains of Portugal
by Yann Martel
It was September 2001 when Yann Martel’s novel, Life of Pi (2001, Knopf Canada), burst upon the book scene in North America. At that time, Martel’s fantasy/adventure story of a boy and a tiger lost at sea in a lifeboat won many prestigious literary prizes, among them the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. In 2012 the movie “Life of Pi” premiered and won four Academy Awards, including Best Director. Today, the book Life of Pi is on the required reading list at colleges and continues to be chosen as a selection for book clubs, an example being the “100 Books Challenge” discussion at Goodreads website which chose Life of Pi as their book selection in May 2016.
Now, a decade and a half after Pi, Yann Martel has written another fantasy/adventure which again displays his wondrously creative writing style, wildly clever plot lines and startling use of fantasy. In his new book, The High Mountains of Portugal (2016, Spiegel&Grau), the playfulness and humor which suffuses Martel’s writing is so appealing that some might want to enjoy the story at face value only. But there is an underlying oddness in the narrative which compels the reader to question what the author is trying to accomplish; why has he brought us along on this bizarre journey? What lies behind these characters –the humans, the animals, the geography of the landscape? For as entertaining and fantastic as The High Mountains of Portugal is, the story has as its basis a painful human reality– death.
The High Mountains of Portugal is divided into three parts. Each part tells the story of one man’s grief and how he deals with it. All the men are grieving the loss of a close family member, and although they are not grieving over the same person, their stories are linked. While telling of the individual men’s emotional and spiritual struggle with grief, the author spins out two travel sagas and one stationary fantasy. These tales are actually three marvelous stand-alone stories contained within the larger scope of the novel, and they shimmer with allegory, metaphor, fantasy and scripture.
Here is an excerpt from the second part of The High Mountains of Portugal, titled “Homeward,” in which the character, Eusebio Lozora, is describing his wife’s compulsive chattering:
“He has much listening to do, he does, with his wife, and not much doing. Her mouth might be dried up like a potsherd, but she never quotes the line that follows in Psalm 22 — ‘and my tongue sticks to my jaws’ — because that would be an untruth. Her tongue is never stuck to her jaws. Maria ardently believes in the spoken word. To her, writing is making stock and reading is sipping broth, but only the spoken word is the full roasted chicken. And so she talks. She talks all the time. She talks to herself when she’s alone at home and she talks to herself when she is alone in the street, and she has been talking to him incessantly since the day they met, thirty-eight years ago. His wife is an endlessly unfurling conversation, with never a true stop, only a pause. But she produces no drivel and has no patience for drivel. Sometimes she chafes at the inane talk she has to endure with her friends. She serves them coffee and cake, she listens to their prattle, and later she grouses, ‘Guinea pigs, I am surrounded by guinea pigs.’ “
Except for a brief period of time in North America, the perpetual geographical backdrop for The High Mountains of Portugal is the country of Portugal, and in particular the high mountains of Portugal. The reader learns early in the book that there are no actual high mountains in Portugal. What is the reason then, for this phrase, “the high mountains of Portugal,” which is very important to the story, and is also the title of the book? In a fascinating interview with Yann Martel conducted by Lorna Dueck on May 13, 2016 on the Canadian television show called “Context with Lorna Dueck,” Martel said that the high mountains of Portugal are, “[In] our mind,” and we are meant to “conquer and climb them…”
Dueck: “And you want us to take faith, take religion, into them. Why?”
Martel: “Yes. In The High Mountains of Portugal here is what I was doing: I was looking at tools that we might have to deal with suffering, because that’s the great thing that the material world doesn’t provide, is tools to deal with suffering. A purely secular person, if their child dies, they basically have no tools. They can maybe write a great poem about that, but there’s no greater context. What’s extraordinary about religion is that it puts suffering in a greater context.”
Dueck: “So, in The High Mountains of Portugal, you take the broad story of Jesus, am I right on this, you are trying to follow the human story along the broad story of Jesus?”
Martel: “Yes, The High Mountains of Portugal is broadly an allegory of the life of Jesus.”
In the interview, Martel described that what brought the story of The High Mountains of Portugal together for him was an observation he made while he was looking through the New Revised Standard Version of the New Testament; he noticed that the little chapter headings in the book of Mark, “were a very succinct summary of the life of Jesus.” He then asked himself if he could write a novel using those chapter headings as his guideline for the story. From this idea Martel began to write The High Mountains of Portugal. During the course of the interview Martel also revealed that his three main characters represent an atheist, an agnostic and a theist, and their reactions to loss.
For readers who are fans of Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal is equally imaginative as Pi, with a message that is very much directed to the Christian community. Highly metaphorical, and sometimes disturbing, Martel’s broad narrative of the life of Christ might be interpreted as stepping over the lines of propriety at times, but The High Mountains of Portugal also contains some deeply original and cliché-breaking ideas about the scriptures, and stunning representations of the humility, beauty and benevolence of Christ. Overall, the power of the story of Christianity remains wonderfully convincing in Martel’s novel.
Here’s hoping that one of the local book clubs will put The High Mountains of Portugal on their 2017 reading list. I suspect that this extraordinary tale will produce a rollicking good book discussion – and I would love to be there.