The High Mountains of Portugal is comprised of three stories whose connection become clear throughout the book: the first, and strongest in my opinion, features Tomás in 1904 who discovers a journal, untouched since it was written by a Father Ulisses in the mid-seventeenth century, which details an object that he has made. Tomás makes it his mission to find the object. It chronicles his journey (in one of the very first Renault cars) through the high mountains of Portugal.
The second, and most bizarre and ambitiously experimental, part concerns Dr Eusebio Lozora in his office one evening in 1938, in conversation with his wife about the relationship between the Agatha Christie books and Jesus and Christianity.
And the third section is set in 1981 in Canada, initially, before senator Peter moves to Portugal with an ape in tow (emulating Martel’s excellent Booker Prize winning novel Life of Pi) to contemplate life from new heights.
In some ways it’s a very ‘post’-novel, so preoccupied with what has passed. Our protagonists are widowers, mourning the recent loss of their wives. Some characters walk backwards, choosing to face what should be behind them. Even professions focus on the past: Tomás is an assistant curator at the National Museum of Ancient Art, working with relics from a previous age; Dr Lozora is a pathologist.
But it’s also strangely a ‘pre’-novel too: the premise of The High Mountains of Portugal is mentioned as an abandoned project in our “author’s” note that precedes Life of Pi. Dr Lozora’s chapter places us in New Year’s Eve of 1938 – with the start of World War Two looming ominously.
It feels like we’re rather caught between the motions of the past and a sense of the future: like we’re on a kind of treadmill that’s stuck in a slow setting, or struggling a little to progress, similar to the gears of Tomás’ new car.
But sometimes this meditative pace is very welcome as Martel creates sad and beautiful moments which will resonate in haunting pauses with readers: he sensitively observes that, when in mourning, ‘there are times when he bursts into tears for no reason that he can discern, an occurrence as random as a sneeze’ and that ‘grief [is] in competition with simmering panic.’
Ultimately, I’d refer to Martel’s author’s note in Life of Pi on his project: ‘Your theme is good, as are your sentences […] Really, your story can only be great. But it all adds up to nothing. In spite of the obvious, shining promise of it, there comes a moment when you realize that the whisper that has been pestering you all along from the back of your mind is speaking the flat, awful truth: it won’t work. An element is missing…’
Well, perhaps that’s putting it a bit strongly.
The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel was published by Canongate books in February 2016.
My copy was kindly provided by the publisher to review.