The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

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The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: From an author who is not exactly prolific comes a rich, absorbing but flawed look at what drives one in a world containing grief.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: February 2016
Publisher: Canongate Books
ISBN: 9781782114697

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Tomas is being thrust into the twentieth Century, and he doesn't like it. He has given himself the job of seeking something out in the High Mountains of Portugal, based on an ancient religious diary he found working in an archive, and to do so he needs the use of his uncle's brand new car to get him there and back in time. His jaw drops when he learns he will have to do the driving himself, for he cannot make head nor tail of what anything on the infernal machine does and why. It is of course a certain kind of progress, a looking forward, which has become quite anathema to him – for ever since he lost his beloved wife, beloved child and father, all in the space of a week, he has walked everywhere backwards – shielding himself from what really is ahead with a padded behind, and never letting sight of what he has lost.

This is right up my street where journeys in fiction are concerned – you soon realise it's the travel that counts and not the arrival. The mode of transport – ugly in an ugly way as Tomas defines it – is crucial to this journey, too, for it shows a country that anywhere else would be on the cusp of industrialisation and modernity. Not so the remote NE of Portugal, which doesn't really have any actual mountains, but might as well have for the difficulty of getting around. Tomas is great company, with the present tense narrative really opening his days and nights on the road up to the reader. I've never seen such a perfect blend of the Tatiesque and the Quixotic.

But I can't pretend that that is the be-all-and-end-all of this book, for it isn't. This is actually three long stories, that are linked in several ways, and as much as I would like to isolate the first one as really quite charming, I have to report on the others. The middle one is set much later, in a pathologist's lab of all places, and it veers from the fantastic to the fantastically bad. So much of the dialogue is absurdly implausible, and like nobody on this planet has spoken, ever. I did have to skip several pages, and I think which ones will be apparent to anyone, while the magical realism was surprising for me in how much I accepted it. The third chunk is a different time zone again, with a different character again, and a very different launch place. It feels at times like the author is wilfully disguising the weave he has got – deferring the reveal of the connections between the pieces – although I was very much on board to find out what they all were.

This, then, is a rarity, being a Yann Martel book, being only the second novel since The Life of Pi. Suitably, it's reflecting on both that and the book of short stories that came before it (the less said about which, the better) – there is a touch here of the redemptive, transformative nature of wildlife, and the format of large-scale short stories. It seems a perfect answer, companion or mirror to both prior books at different stages. But it's not perfect in and of itself. Some pieces really are worth writing home about – the third piece is very affecting, and a lot of the opening work is going to stay with me a long time for being deep and whimsical together, but it is quite scarred by some of the middle tale. It does work as a novel, but so diverse are its constituent parts you do have to break it down thusly. On the whole it has to be deemed a success.

Distant Light by Antonio Moresco and Richard Dixon (translator) contains a man engaging with his self and his nature, again with a semi-magical approach that readers of Martel will enjoy.

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