Thursday 29 September 2016

Books: Life after Pi: Tenuous tales from a Portuguese village

Fiction: The High Mountains of Portugal, Yann Martel, Canongate, hdbk, 352 pages, €22.50

Sophie Gorman

Published 07/02/2016 | 02:30

Magic realism: Yann Martel takes the reader down unnecessary paths.
Magic realism: Yann Martel takes the reader down unnecessary paths.
The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

Yann Martel sprang into the literary world in 2001 with his second novel, the Man Booker prize-winning Life of Pi. He followed this up, in 2010, with Beatrice and Vigil, a novel centred on an author who had huge literary success and didn't know how to write another novel. In this, his fourth novel, he returns to more straightforward magic realism.

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The High Mountains of Portugal comprises three seemingly distinct stories, 'Homeless', 'Homeward' and 'Home', all tenuously linked by a small village in those titular high mountains.

'Homeless' opens in Lisbon in 1904, with Tomás who has suffered the impossible grief of the death of his wife, son and father, all in a single week. He walks backwards, one of his many eccentricities, but this one is his only way to face the world. He always carries the diary of a long dead priest, Father Ulisses, that he has 'borrowed'. Father Ulisses created a dramatic crucifix and Tomás is determined to find it in those high mountains. His rich uncle lends him an automobile, a novelty in those times, and Tomás learns to drive as he goes. There is an accident, when he has almost reached the end of his journey, a small boy must have climbed on the front of the automobile. The car runs over him, a soft bump. Tomás decides to drive away. But, having himself lost a young child, he cannot now lose the guilt that physically inhabits him.

'Homeward' begins on the final night of 1938. Eusebio Lozaro is the head pathologist in the hospital in Bragança and he is catching up with work. His wife Maria unexpectedly arrives and they toast the New Year and discuss the parallels between Jesus's miracles and Agatha Christie mysteries, with Saint Paul as a precursor to Hercule Poirot. After his wife leaves, another Maria arrives, Maria Castro, in the early hours of January 1, 1939. This Maria is from Tuzielo, the village in the mountains where we last saw Tomás. But she doesn't want to talk about him, she wants to talk about how she discovered sex.

She married a local man, Rafael, and, with him, she discovered she loved sex. But everything must end and now she's in a pathologist's office with Rafael's shoeless body in a suitcase. Maria is persuasive and Eusebio finds himself performing an autopsy in front of her. Upon her insistence, he finds himself unconventionally starting with the foot. But Rafael's feet are filled with vomit, there is a peasant flute in his most intimate part, his right hand holds an oyster shell and his ring finger is packed with feathers. This second part is more engaging and the link between these first two stories soon tragically emerges.

'Home' opens in Ottawa in 1981 with 62-year-old Canadian senator Peter Tovay, whose most beloved wife, Clara, has just died. He is falling apart and so is sent on a trip to Oklahoma. On the last day of the visit he arranges a trip to the local chimpanzee sanctuary. There he meets Odo, a chimp with a past, and he finds himself buying Odo. But he can't bring a chimpanzee to live in Ottawa with it freezing winters, he needs a warmer clime, why not return to his roots, yes, in the high mountains of Portugal.

This is somehow both a very literal book and one filled with magic realism, and indeed it is an exploration of faith and how we can learn to accept death. There is a determined simplicity to the writing style and whole swathes that divert down unnecessary paths, with much need to accept coincidence and the almost impossible.

But Martel is certainly on more confident ground here and he has an ability to write about the very fundamental human emotional threads that join us.

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