Sunday, 10 January 2016

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel Review

Yann Martel’s latest novel, The High Mountains of Portugal, is crap. 

It’s split into three sections set at different points of the twentieth century: 1904, 1938, and sometime in the early 1980s. Each section is set in rural Portugal and features a chimp at crucial points of the three stories. Also, I have no idea what the point of this novel is! 

So I went back to the blurb and re-read that this is a novel about faith and love and loss. I get the feeling that the reason why this book is described in this broad, wishy-washy way is because neither the publisher nor the author knows what the hell it’s about either! Let’s look at each of the three sections - they’re loosely connected but they don’t add up to anything by the end. 

The first section is the most trying by far - I can see why some readers would abandon the novel during this part as it is interminable. A grief-stricken man called Tomas discovers the journal of a 17th century priest who observed the slave trade in Africa and goes on a road trip to a remote Portuguese mountain village to find a special religious artifact. What follows is roughly 100 pages of description on how a fucking car works. 

I know contextually this would be an alien contraption to most people back then (1904) but do today’s audience need to suffer - and you will SUFFER - page after page of mind-numbingly tedious descriptions of how a car operates? The answer is no but that’s what you get anyway. The story is quickly finished off with a baffling and flat finale. 

Thank goodness then that that go-nowhere plotline is abandoned entirely! The bad news is that the rest of the book only marginally improves from here on out. The second section is set on New Year’s Eve 1938 and features a pathologist and his wife talking in the pathologist’s office. His wife has a really well-thought out speech comparing Agatha Christie’s novels to Jesus Christ that was genuinely fascinating (though the reason why she came up with it is completely stupid). She leaves, the pathologist conducts an autopsy, there’s some bonkers magical realist stuff, and then it’s over. Not great but better than the nothing that was the first section. 

The third and final part of the novel is set in the 1980s and features a Canadian senator whose wife has recently passed away. Through some contrivances he winds up with a chimp called Odo and decides to visit the rural Portuguese mountain village his ancestors were from. This part of the novel was the best if only for the adorable descriptions of Odo’s behaviour - so cute! Some tenuous links are made to connect the three sections and the book’s over. It’s so underwhelming. 

What bothered me by far was the goddamn Literary-ness of the whole enterprise. Tomas decides to walk backwards from now on. He decides to go on this strange quest with even stranger goals. The pathologist’s wife has a lengthy speech contrasting Agatha Christie and Jesus Christ. The pathologist autopsies a corpse and finds extraordinary things contained within the body. The senator - apropos of nothing - throws away his career, buys a chimp, goes to Portugal, and spends his days hiking with the chimp. The ending of the senator’s story in particular - that image (you’ll see if you read this). Why to any of that? Because it’s Literary and Quirky. What twee garbage.

I’ve honestly spent time trying to figure out what this novel is about and I’ve gotten nowhere. Maybe it’s about how animals, particularly primates, embody a purity that is the ideal of Christianity better than human believers and we should aspire to something like that? Maybe animals are more holy/spiritual than humans could ever be or civilisation dilutes belief? I don’t want to say love and loss make us do weird things because that’s too banal, though both themes feature prominently throughout to no effect. The repeated imagery of chimps went right past me. I have no idea what relevance - if any - chimps have in Portugal. 

All I can say is that this book left no impression on me besides a certainty that, though I may have enjoyed Life of Pi years ago, it’ll be a long, long time before I pick up another Yann Martel novel again. The Agatha Christie speech and some of the Odo passages were good but those are a small part of this extremely precious, insubstantial book full of ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake. Boring and empty of ideas, let alone possessing a compelling story or interesting characters, The High Mountains of Portugal is utter rubbish.

The High Mountains of Portugal

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