Staff Shelf-Talker: The High Mountains of Portugal, Yann Martel

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Yann Martel’s latest offering is a humorous, surreal and devastating exploration of love, grief and our own struggle to understand death. The High Mountains of Portugal is made up of three individual novellas, subtly interwoven. In Homeless, Martel introduces us to Tomas, who after losing his lover, son and father, sets off on a quest for vengeance against God in pursuit of a “quite extraordinary” artefact. 35 years later in Homeward, a similarly grieving Eusebio comes to terms with his loss and his faith while performing a bizarre and absurd autopsy. Fifty years later, following the death of his wife, Canadian senator Peter retires to his ancestral village in Portugal with his chimpanzee companion in Home.

Each story builds on the last as all three protagonists try to make meaning of their loss. However while each story is somehow linked to the others, the tone shifts dramatically between them. While Homeless is youthful and fast-paced – Tomas has 10 days to complete his quest and hurtles through Portugal in one of the first automobiles – the following sections seem to progressively decelerate. One could argue Martel has done so to convey how age (or more aptly, maturity) provides us with the tools to understand, or at least accept death.

Much like Life of Pi, Martel’s use of animal symbols adds another layer of allegory to this philosophy-driven novel. Here, the chimpanzee appears in all three sections, and sparks thought on religion, evolution and our own humanity.

The High Mountains of Portugal is an interesting read to say the least. While the plot itself is not incredibly compelling, and the jumps between possible and impossible require the suspension of disbelief, it is a novel that will spark deep thought and discussion regardless of the reader’s overall stance. In that way, it is the perfect book for a bookclub, and well worth the read.

-Alex

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