Review – Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal

If ever I had doubts about what it means to “devour a book” or “savour a story”, they’re gone. I’ve done it. I devoured the delicious and savoury latest offering from Yann Martel, the Man Booker Prize-winning author of Life of Pi.

Be warned, however, The High Mountains of Portugal is no free lunch. The novel is structured, like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, in parts that are set in very different windows of time and space, linked by quite tenuous but symbolic icons and events. Martel makes us sing for our supper.

We’re rewarded only after the hard work in the initial – shall we say ‘appetite-building’? – parts. The human-to-human and human-to-mechanical-beast relationships that we encounter here are dense and complex. By comparison, the protagonist’s relationship with his cohabiting partner in the end story is a breath of fresh air and a delight. It offers the same curious but straightforward tensions and affirmations that we witnessed with Pi and Richard Parker in the boat.
It is telling that Martel, a Canadian, was born in Spain. He shares with Saramago (The Cave) the gift of taking us along to accept a condition, otherwise unbelievable, on its figurative merits. He shares with Mitchell, Jim Crace and Tim Winton the ability to create what I propose are best described as “literary ecosystems” because human behaviour is so perfectly blended with their landscapes.

I was so enamoured by the end of this book that I tried re-reading parts, thinking that perhaps it could be a circular story that one could dip into at any point. But Martel knows his craft; best you start at the beginning and don’t give up until you can’t.

Jenny Whitehead, for Kalk Bay Books