Martel takes readers to Portugal with latest book

Readers of “Life of Pi” will be pleased to see Yann Martel’s new novel, “The High Mountains of Portugal,” the engaging spiritual successor to his Man Booker Prize-winning work.

“The High Mountains of Portugal,” released Feb. 2, is actually three novellas in one, with stand-alone stories entitled “Homeless,” “Homeward” and “Home,” which all somehow wind up in the central location of Tuzielo, a peasant village in the High Mountains of Portugal.

The first section, “Homeless,” is set in the 1930s, as a Lisbon native named Tomás sets on a journey full of mishaps to Tuzielo in a high-maintenance early automobile after losing his entire family. Much later on, “Homeward” centers around a Portuguese pathologist, Eusebio, who agrees to examine the dead body of a Tuzielo villager for Maria, a grieving widow. And “Home” follows the modern-time Canadian senator Peter after his wife dies to cancer, as he quits his job, severs all connections with those he knows and moves into his old family home in Tuzielo.

The cover art for Yann Martels new book The High Mountains of Portugal courtesy of Random House.

The cover art for Yann Martels new book The High Mountains of Portugal courtesy of Random House.

Even though these three tales center on the same fictional village, they seem at first completely disjointed: different people, different time periods, different storylines. Yet Martel is able to wind the three parts together in a shocking finale as the actions of Tomás profoundly impact those of characters in the later sections.

The book centers largely around the theme of grief—Tomás, Maria and Peter have all lost loved ones—and how people cope with it in different ways. More specifically, it deals with saudade, a Portuguese word with no literal translation, invoking feelings of despair and a longing for the past.

For example, Tomás deals with his emotional storm by walking backwards, another motif of the book, signifying his rejection of what life has served him and desire to return to previous times. Peter, on the other hand, replaces his lost wife with a chimpanzee he spontaneously buys as his full-time companion.

This chimpanzee is part of another motif, one seen in other books of Martel’s like “Life of Pi” and “Beatrice and Virgil”: using partly anthropomorphized animal characters. Chimpanzees play a part in each of the three story lines in “High Mountains,” another common factor tying them together.

These two works also share extensive discourses on the nature of religion, coming from Martel’s philosophical view of religion as an atheist.

For example, Tomás’ entire journey to the High Mountains revolves around his obsession to find a 16th century crucifix made by a missionary questioning the virtues of his religious duties. And Eusebio’s wife delivers a rambling speech relating the works of mystery novelist Agatha Christie to the life of Jesus.

Even if you haven’t yet read any of Martel’s books, you will still thoroughly enjoy “High Mountains.” Amid the dark themes there remains a sense of hope through the light and often humorous tone that Martel uses, and the way in which the three stories intertwine is completely original and makes the 300-page read worth it in and of itself.
-Ari Freedman