I’m no stranger to the Iberian Peninsula, having been there numerous times with my family on holidays when I was growing up. Then with a good mate in my early twenties. After that a girlfriend dumped me midway through another holiday there in my early thirties, by a poolside in front of fellow sun worshipers stretched out on sun loungers – classy. Then, last year I went there on my honeymoon.
I’ve never been any further north than the Algarve not even to its beautiful capital city of Lisbon, often referred to as the San Francisco of Europe because of its Golden Gate styled bridge and cable cars. Neither am I acquainted with any of Portugal’s mountains. To be honest there aren’t really any. The highest Portuguese mountain isn’t even on the Portuguese mainland but in the middle of the Atlantic, on the Azores. The highest point on continental Portugal is Torre “Tower” at 1,993m and that’s the highest point in a mountain range, not an individual mountain so you can see why there was some smiles when we discussed this month’s second book at our recent book group. It’s the High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel – published by Canongate (www.canongate.tv) in 2016.
The book is basically a compilation three novellas the first one entitled “Homeless” follows the exploits of Tomas a grief-stricken archaeologist as he goes in search of a religious icon, over his short Christmas holidays. The artifact in question is a crucifix with monkey on it brought from Africa by a long dead Portuguese missionary. To help him in his search, his wealthy uncle entrusts him with one of his prized new-fangled automobiles, something he has never encountered before, let alone driven. The second story tells of a Pathologist who is asked to perform an autopsy on a man by his widow, when she turns up at his offices late at night with the deceased in a large trunk. Finally, a Canadian politician, retires to Portugal after the death of his wife with a monkey he bought from sanctuary, to start a new life in his ancestral home in the last tale.
If you’ve never read anything by Yann Martell, then this book is going to feel a bit weird. But if like me you you’ve had the experience of reading his work before, then it’s going feel a bit like par for the course. However, this book is straight out of left field even by Yann’s standards.
One thing you should be made aware of from the outset is that Martell has a fascination with Animals – especially monkeys. The Life of PI features a Tiger, Orangutan, Hyena, Zebra and boy in a life raft… Beatrice and Virgil, explores the relationship of a writer and a taxidermist and two of his prized works; a donkey and monkey. Then again, in the High Mountains of Portugal he places monkeys in all three stories.
Regarding the three stories, the first one is humorous in the main – especially when we observe Tomas trying to get to grips with the art of driving after a very brief 5 minute lessen from his uncle and his manservant. His run ins with the locals who are both scared, bewildered and in awe of this new contraception. Then his exploits in making sure he can get fuel for the car is the wilderness that is the uplands of north eastern Portugal, the ending has a tragic event which had the book group divide as to whether it was deliberate or an accident.
After the brevity of the first story, the second one entitled “Homeward” is a real head scratcher and had me thinking I was reading the script to an episode of the British TV series “Tales of The Unexpected” or similarly, “The Twilight Zone”. But the twist at the end is fantastic and considering the first half of the story centres on a discussion between the central character and his wife on the parallels between Agatha Christie and the miracles of our lord, near the witching hour on new years eve. I was almost falling a sleep but the autopsy it self had me sitting bolt upright again and not knowing whether to laugh or cry after it.
As for the third and final story called “Home”, which follows the ups and downs and the wacky events of the previous two stories, this is straight out of the Disney school of how to write a heart wrenching and emotional feel good animal story. It’s ‘Lassie-esque’, with the theme of the film “Every Which Way But Lose” driven straight through it. Images of Clint Eastwood and Clyde were stuck in my head while reading it.
This is Canadian writer Yann Martell’s (www.yannmartel.ca ) 8th book, the others being The Facts Behind The Helsinki Racamatios(1993), Self(1996), Life Of PI(2001), What Is Stephen Harper Reading(2009), Beatrice & Virgil(2010) and 101 Letters To a Prime Minister(2012).
Just to add to the Twilight Zone feel of this book is the discovery gradually that all the stories are linked in a roundabout way, this in turn adds to the appeal of the book.
The thoughts of the book group, where divided. None of them bar one person, myself, recognised a theme running throughout, grief, The whole book is an examination of how different people deal with it. Everyone at some stage in their life experiences loss, and no two people go through it the same way. Myself included. It was quite by coincidence that the 18th anniversary of my father’s passing occurred while reading the book.
It’s strange that this book had me feeling quite apprehensive at the start, going on the experiences left over from Beatrice and Virgil. It took me to heights and places I’d never felt Martel’s work could do. As a result, I now see his work in a new light, making me want to give his other unread works a go. So if you fancy tripping the light fantastic and finally getting into the mind of this author, download a copy or get down to your local bookshop and begin a fantastic journey.