The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

Risen apes, fallen angels…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀


the high mountains of portugalIn a few short days in 1904, young Tomàs loses his lover, his child and his father to unexpected deaths. In the turmoil of emotions that follows, he begins to walk backwards everywhere he goes. People think this is his way of dealing with grief, but Tomàs sees it not as grieving but as objecting. Objecting to the unfairness of life and of God. Tomàs works in a museum and has come across an old journal written by a priest who lived amongst the slaves in one of Portugal’s African colonies centuries earlier. Father Ulissis was building something he referred to as ‘a gift’. Tomàs believes this gift ended up in a church in the High Mountains of Portugal, and decides to track it down…

So begins the first section of this three part novel, each very different but with common themes running through them, and all linked to a small town in the High Mountains, Tuizelo. The writing is nothing short of brilliant. It flows smoothly, feels light and airy, but is full of insight into grief and love and heartache. This first section also has lots of humour as Tomàs sets off on his journey in a borrowed car – a newfangled thing in 1904 that causes consternation everywhere he goes, especially since his driving is reminiscent of Mr Toad’s.

Beneath the humour, though, Martel never lets us forget Tomàs’ grief, showing it with great empathy but never descending into mawkishness. The search for the gift has become an attempt for Tomàs to find some kind of catharsis. On the death of his beloved Dora, Tomàs found himself feeling that at such a time one must either accept or reject faith totally. His search is as much to find the answer to that question as the gift itself. The journey gradually darkens and takes on elements of the surreal before Tomàs reaches his destination, physical and emotional. The middle of this section drags a little, but the end makes up for the length of the journey.

If a job was left unfinished at the end of a day – the coop not repaired, a row of vegetables not weeded – we knew that one of us had sat down and wept. That’s the nature of grief: it’s a creature with many arms but few legs, and it staggers about, searching for support. Frayed chicken wire and a profusion of weeds became expressions of our loss. I can’t look at chicken wire now without thinking of my lost son. There’s something about the warp and weft of it, so thin yet strong, so porous yet solid, that reminds me of how we loved him. Later, because of our neglect, chickens died at the jaws of a fox that slipped into the coop, and the crop of vegetables was not so bountiful – but so it goes: a son dies and the earth becomes barren.

The second section is considerably more surreal. Normally surrealism and I don’t get along, but Martel’s storytelling is so beautiful my cynicism was swept away. Late one evening in 1938, Eusebio Lozora, a pathologist, is visited in his office by his wife, who has come primarily to discuss Christ’s miracles, which she does by comparing the gospels to the works of Agatha Christie. In the context of the book, this is not as off the wall as it sounds – well, it is! But her argument makes a kind of sense – she suggests that the importance of both is in the witnessing. When she leaves, another woman turns up, a woman from Tuizelo, who wants Eusebio to carry out an autopsy on her dead husband.

Tuizelo in the High Mountains of Portugal
Tuizelo in the High Mountains of Portugal

It’s always difficult to know how much to say in a review, and I’m not going to reveal any more about this section because the wonder of it is in the revelations that come about as it progresses. I found the whole section stunning. It flows superbly, and the fundamental ludicrousness of it is entirely dispelled by the excellence of the writing and the insight into love and grief. Quite beautiful.

They never look very big on the table, the bodies. It’s built to accommodate the largest frames, there’s that. And they’re naked. But it’s something else. That parcel of the being called the soul – weighing twenty-one grams, according to the experiments of the American doctor Duncan MacDougall – takes up a surprising amount of space, like a loud voice. In its absence, the body seems to shrink. That is, before the bloat of decomposition.

And yet still not as wonderful as the third section. It’s 1981 and Canadian Senator Peter Tovy is grieving the death of his wife. On a trip to Oklahoma, he visits the Institute for Primal Research, where he makes a sudden connection with a chimpanzee, Odo – the chimp looks straight into his eyes in a way people have avoided doing since his bereavement. He buys the chimp and the two of them set off to make a new life in Tuizelo, where Peter’s family originated.

It’s in the observation that this section excels. Odo is not anthropomorphised; in fact, if anything, it is Peter who tries to ape the lifestyle of the chimp. Their interactions are beautifully realised – Odo always projects an element of slight menace to Peter; although the chimp is happy to share his life with the human, he retains his fundamental wildness. In time the villagers, who initially feared him, begin to accept Odo as a unique presence within their community. Again I don’t want to reveal too much, except to say that links between this section and the others are gradually revealed, and the ending is a thing of perfect beauty that left me sobbing – not for sorrow, but for joy.

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.

Yann Martel
Yann Martel

The whole book is deliciously enigmatic and I’m sure could be read in a hundred different ways. It is a subtle discussion of the evolution vs. faith debate, with the old evolutionary saw of “risen apes, not fallen angels” appearing repeatedly. Chimps appear in some form in each of the sections, but symbolically rather than actually, except in the third. I feel Mantel is suggesting that the two sides of the debate are not irreconcilable, and that faith itself is the thing that is required to reconcile them. Small miracles are possible, but we will only see them as that if we let reason take a back seat for a bit. Perhaps he’s also reminding us that religion and faith are not always the same thing. And ultimately it seems to me he is saying that just because we are risen apes doesn’t mean we couldn’t be fallen angels too. I did feel some aspects of the chimp symbolism might offend some Christians, but I found the whole thing an original and insightful approach to the question that provokes thought without forcing any specific answers on the reader.

But meaning aside, the sheer quality of the writing along with the more overt themes of grief and love make it a wonderful read. It gets my highest recommendation – one that has left some indelible images in my mind and will undoubtedly be in the running for my book of the year.

PS I have tried to avoid revealing too many details in this review. If you’re planning on reading the book, I strongly advise that you avoid the various press reviews, which seem to have been vying with each other to ruin it by giving details of the endings of each of the three sections. Fortunately I didn’t read any of them till after I’d finished the book, and thus had the joy of discovering it unspoiled.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate Books.

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61 thoughts on “The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

  1. Thanks for the spoiler-free review and the warning – don’t you just hate it when it happens? I’m sure people can talk about the style or the characters or whatever without spoiling the ending for future readers.

    • It’s one reason I avoid the professional reviews like the plague till after I’ve read the book, when I read them to see if they validate my own opinion. But for some reason the press reviews of this one are really spoiler-filled – and this book’s effect depends so much on turning a page and being hit with something totally unexpected. Grrr!!!

  2. How very naughty of the press to be up to such shenanigans – typical! This does sound rather good and your review makes it very tempting. But… no more books shall sneak their way in right now.

  3. I’m so glad, FictionFan, that you didn’t spoil this one. I face that challenge, myself, when I talk about books, and it’s not always easy. As to surrealism, I’m not always fond of it myself. It’s got to be done very deftly, and it really does hinge on the writing style. In this case, that style looks elegant without being too lofty, and thoughtful without being too burdensome. A perfect balance! Oh, and the setting intrigued me right away.

    • I know – sometimes I look back at a review of mine and wonder if I haven’t given too much away by accident. But the press reviews of this one are particularly bad – especially since the surprises in this book are what makes it work so well. That’s a perfect description of his style – not at all flowery or mock profound, but with great flow. And I didn’t even get around to mentioning how well he creates a sense a place…

  4. I absolutely agree with you about this book and I knew I would. It is up there amongst the best books I have read this year and It is better than “Life Of PI” which I also loved (and I understand totally your reasons for not reading that). I thought the third section of “Portugal” was stunning. I’m a little surprised it hasn’t been getting the same sort of attention which “Pi” got and you are right in what you say about some press reviews giving so much away that they might be putting people off reading it. Splendid review, as always

    • I found it a really enthralling read – it caught me up more and more as it went on and I read that last section in one long session in the end. Still thinking about it a couple of weeks later, and intriguingly, although it was the third section that hit me most at the time, it’s the second section that keeps lingering in my thoughts…

      One of the press reviews in particular slammed it – Ursula Le Guin in The Guardian. She clearly missed the entire point and in her contempt for the book decided deliberately to spoil it. She even says as much in the review… “I haven’t hesitated to reveal events, because in the absence of causality plot evaporates; when everything is a surprise, nothing can be a surprise.” I’m kinda disgusted with her and with The Guardian for printing it…

      • Came as a shock to me that Le Guin, whose books I always admired, is still reviewing (or indeed, writing). She must be pushing ninety!

        • Goodness, I suppose she must! I really thought it was a poor review – not that she hated the book, that’s a perfectly fair matter of opinion, but that she clearly didn’t have a clue what Martel was really doing and grumpily decided just to spoil it because she didn’t like it. She has been removed from my wishlist…!

  5. Hahaha. Maybe a little more than faith, even, I would say. But what an interest. It’d be a wonder to see if we rose as apes first or fell as angels first. I’d rather rise than fall, I think. I might take that back of course.

    The mountains of Portugal! I’m going there. It looks stunning.

    • Haha! I knew this one would make you snort! I think we probably fell as angels then rose as apes, and are now rising as humans (except Mr Trump obviously, who defies both faith and evolutionary science…) *waits expectantly for more Professorial snorting and harrumphing*

      It does! He made the country sound as beautiful as Susan always says…

      • I think I’m falling as a human. My brain forgets more everyday, can you believe. That’s a professorish problem for you right. Mr. Trump just won my state, did you hear… I find it so funny that all my un-American friends hate him…haha.

        Take me there, please.

        • That’s a sign of old age! Imagine how little you’ll remember by the time you’re BUS’s age! So did Mrs Clinton! We only hate him because he’s a racist, sexist pig (and the hairdo, of course)! But even most Americans hate him, I’m glad to see.

          No, you take me! *nods emphatically*

  6. Ok, you have entirely convinced me, I have seen so many mixed reviews of this book that I have been thoroughly confused about what to think of it. But you have convinced me to ignore all that (as well as the commenter above), and I will grab this one the next time I see it. Great review!

    • Thank you! I steered clear of the reviews as much as poss till after I’d read it and was really surprised at how mixed they are. I suspect, as I hinted in my review, that there might be an element of offence-taking at some of the symbolism – writing about faith is always tricky. Plus there’s no doubt the middle of the first section drags a bit – but push on past it, it’s worth it! Do grab it! I’d love to hear what you think!

  7. Glad you enjoyed this, and your review encourages me to give it a go. I loved The Life of PI, so I’m predisposed in Martel’s favour.

    • I’m tempted to put my anti-animal book prejudice aside and try Pi – he certainly handled the whole chimp thing beautifully in this one. I hope you enjoy this one – as you gathered, I think it’s great!

  8. I am adding it this instant! Sounds like my kind of book. Maybe I should read it backwards in solidarity to the character’s protest…. 😄

    Great review. I look forward to reading this!

    • Good, good, good!!! I suspect you’ll love it – well, I hope you will! Do let me know! Haha! The walking backwards thing threw me at the beginning – you know me and my credibility line issues! But I’m glad I went along with it, and now I think it’s a fine idea…

  9. Great review and I’m so glad you liked this one as much as I did! (And I agree with you re: avoiding reviews that spoil too much of the plot. This was definitely a book that benefited from not knowing much about the plot going in.)

    • Hahaha! I wondered who this was – I was about to give you my “Welcome to the blog” speech… 😉

      Thank you! It really blew me away – I haven’t sobbed that much since… Beloved, I think! But this one was good sobbing! (I know – I got quite angry when I saw how much the press reviews had given away. The delicious surprises in this are so special…)

  10. I’m really drawn to this book having read your review and yet I think I would probably struggle – me and enigmatic aren’t good bedfellows! It’s a good job my TBR is as huge as it is otherwise I would be tempted… walking away now!!

    • I’m OK with enigmatic sometimes, but surrealism usually puts me right off. But for some reason he made me not only accept it but actually love it – all in the quality of the writing, I suppose. Haha! Walk fast… 😉

  11. Gosh. I’m surprised and shocked by what you say re Le Guin, a fine writer, in deliberately deciding to spoil the innocent reader’s experience. I’m not sure why I haven’t leapt on this, I loved Life of Pi, and your glowing review does mean I must investigate – whilst making sure press reviews are kept clear of.

    • She’s been hanging around my wishlist for a while, but after what I thought was a not only thoroughly mean-minded but also surprisingly unperceptive review, I had the pleasure of zapping her off it. It wasn’t the slating I minded – though I felt she’d just missed the point entirely – but to go on and spoil it for everyone else just seemed unnacceptable. If I could be bothered, I’d read all her books and put spoiler-filled reviews of them all over Amazon… Grrr!! I do think you’d enjoy this – I’m thinking of putting my anti-animal book prejudice aside and giving Pi a go…

  12. Alright, you convinced me, I’m putting this on the TBR list. (And I’ve never read Life of Pi either, and have a similar self-proclaimed ban on books with animals in them.)

    • Hurrah! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! He certainly handled the whole chimp thing in a way that didn’t upset me at all, and I’m a complete wimp when it comes to animals in books, so you should be fine with that aspect. I might try Pi, though I suspect the animals have a tougher time in it… hmm, maybe I’ll try to find a synopsis first…

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