The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

Book Review by Galen O'Hanlon | 29 Jan 2016
Book title: The High Mountains of Portugal
Author: Yann Martel

Three stories, three grieving men, three years: 1904, 1938, 1981. We begin in Lisbon in 1904, as Tomas sets off in search of an unlikely 17th century artefact in the High Mountains. He drives one of Europe’s earliest motorcars, a fiendish and unfathomable machine that pushes him to the very edge of sanity. He finally arrives at his destination – the tiny village of Tuizelo – and collapses with exhaustion.

Cut to 1938 and a pathologist’s study, late at night. From the roaming of Tomas to the closed-in world of Eusebio – we move from the backcountry to the autopsy table. A woman has travelled from Tuizelo to see him, and over the course of the night the fine line between living and dead dissolves. What follows is an unsettlingly straight version of magical realism, with all the unexplained detail of a short story.

The final section finds a Canadian senator travelling back to Tuizelo, with a chimpanzee in tow. Those who’ve read Life of Pi will recognize Martel’s skill in describing relationships between human and animal worlds: this is the writer at his most involving.

Among the loose thematic strands that tie these stories together – things like grief and religion – there is the single, fixed geographic point: the High Mountains of Portugal, which aren't really mountains at all. It is an unusual novel, a vivid and uncanny adventure in storytelling.

Out 2 Feb, published by Canongate, RRP £16.99