May 11, 2016

Book Review - The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel


The High Mountains of Portugal

by Yann Martel

"Grief is a disease. We were riddled with its pockmarks, tormented by its fevers, broken by its blows. It ate at us like maggots, attacked us like lice--we scratched ourselves to the edge of madness. In the process we became as withered as crickets, as tired as old dogs. Nothing fit right in our lives anymore. Drawers no longer closed cleanly, chairs and tables wobbled, plates became chipped, spoons appeared flecked with dried food, clothes started to stain and tear--and the outside world was just as ill-fitting."

The famed author of Life of Pi delivers a truly conversation- and study-worthy read in his part fantasy, part magical realism, part fiction tale The High Mountains of Portugal. I have no difficulty imagining literature graduate students and professors across the world discussing this book in the classroom and during professional conferences (in part because that's my day job). It would be sad if you didn't hear a lot about this book.

Reading The High Mountains of Portugal is like encountering a mix of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude and Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated, and yet Martel's prose style is completely his own. Not everyone enjoys this style of fiction and many early reviews are responding to the difficulty in reading the prose, but the novel demonstrates the craft of writing at its finest. There were moments when I was confused and lost (as often occurs in prose that has magical realism elements), parts when I laughed, and significant passages when I had to stop and process the depth of what I'd just read (the quoted passage above was one of those moments). The book consists of three parts, but really is a matter of four stories.

The first section "Homeless" follows a Portuguese man named Tomás. In the course of one week, Tomás loses his father, his lover, and his son. He is understandably overcome with intense grief and begins walking backwards as a way of turning his back on God. He wanders Lisbon and encounters a man who owns one of the first automobile models which he uses to travel the country. Having discovered a seventeenth-century journal of priest who worked to minister among slaves, Tomás uses the car to set out on a personal quest hoping to find something to distract himself from the pain he carries.


The second section "Homeward," takes place thirty-five years later and was actually the reason I picked up the book in the first place. I'd read in the book summary that this section contained a character who is a bit obsessed with Agatha Christie's mystery novels and as a devoted fan myself, I was curious to see how and why Martel would include this storyline. Dr. Loroza--himself a widower--performs an autopsy on Maria Castro's husband while Maria is present. During this unbelievably abnormal scene examining the corpse, Maria grieves for her husband and muses on the connection between Agatha Christie's fiction and the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Maria wonders why it is that a reader can be so drawn to a Christie mystery novel, and yet after finishing it can rarely remember whodunnit? She's bothered by the fact that the New Testament accounts of the life of Jesus are written decades after the fact and are second-hand stories. She questions why Jews (whose religion is very text- and reader-oriented) were not entrusted with what she wishes were a stronger and more direct account of Jesus' life and ministry. She connects this to Christie's mysteries, the finger-pointing that occurs within them, the narrative style, and what all of this really means. In the end, a simplified summary of her argument is that the manner in which these texts are written indict humanity at large. As a collective group, we cannot remember the name of the individual man or woman who was the murderer in the mystery novel no more than we can name the man who physically nailed Christ's body to the cross because for her it is essential to feel that we are all of us equally guilty. She proposes that it wasn't one of us but rather all of us that brought about the crucifixion of Jesus: we all have blood on our hands and need to learn to deal with the burden of death and what it means. Her thought process is complicated and undeniably controversial and I'm not doing it justice by recalling it off-hand without a copy of the book in front of me, but I do have a copy of the passage wherein she draws parallels between Christie's stories and Jesus and the apostle Paul and the Belgian detective detective Hercule Poirot:

"The only modern genre that plays on the same high moral register as the Gospels is the lowly regarded murder mystery. If we set the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie atop the Gospels and shine a light through, we see correspondence and congruence, agreement and equivalence. We find matching patterns and narrative similarities. They are maps of the same city, parables of the same existence. They glow with the same moral transparency. And so the explanation for why Agatha Christie is the most popular author in the history of the world. Her appeal is as wide and her dissemination as great as the Bible's, because she is a modern apostle, a female one--about time, after two thousand years of men blathering on. And this new apostle answers the same questions Jesus answered: What are we to do with death? Because murder mysteries are always resolved in the end, the mystery neatly dispelled. We must do the same with death in our lives: resolve it, give it meaning, put it into context, however hard that might be.

And yet Agatha Christie and the Gospels are different in a key way. We no longer live in an age of prophecy and miracle. We no longer have Jesus among us the way the people of the Gospels did. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are narratives of presence. Agatha Christie's are gospels of absence. They are modern gospels for a modern people, a people more suspicious, less willing to believe. And so Jesus is present only in fragments, in traces, cloaked and masked, obscured and hidden. But look--he's right there in her last name. Mainly, though, he hovers, he whispers."

While my beliefs differ from this theory, but it was interesting to read about.

The third section "Home" follows the grieving Canadian politician, Senator Peter Tovy, who takes a trip to a chimpanzee refuge in Oklahoma, adopts one of the chimps, and the two become friends. This part may sound rather random and ridiculous, the connection they form became one of the most touching and tear-provoking relationships within the entire text. My eyes well up just thinking about it.

You're right if you guess that the fourth story in the novel is that of grief itself. Each character carries and responds to overwhelming grief in unique and memorable ways. While on the surface their actions seem absurd--walking backwards, buying a chimpanzee and taking a cross-country roadtrip, attending your husband's autopsy and examining each part of his body in turn--they each are tremendously powerful because anyone who has experienced great grief can relate to the way it tears you assunder. Martel writes "Grief is a disease" and his examination of this disease within The High Mountains of Portugal is truly memorable.


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