The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel — New Review

After having much success reading David Copperfield in Thanet, and The Go-Between in Norfolk, I decided to read The High Mountains of Portugal in, well, Portugal. (We weren’t in the high mountains, which would be in the north, were they not fictional, but we were on a mountain, so I called that close enough.) Reading the blurb, I kind of got the idea that this would be one continuous story, when it’s actually closer to being three separate tales, none of which were particularly satisfactory.

At first, The High Mountains of Portugal reminded me more of London than of Fóia. The opening pages are all about Tomas, who walks backwards. There’s a man I often see from the bus walking backwards through Tufnell Park and Kentish Town, so naturally I got sidetracked wondering why he does it, since he doesn’t have the excuse of being a literary character. Even putting that aside, the Portugal I was reading about and the Portugal I was seeing in front of me seemed to have little in common — so much so that I was genuinely excited to find a description of cork trees, which I recognised.

He learns from it that the peculiar tree he keeps seeing – stock, thick-limbed, the trunk dark brown except where the precious bark has been neatly removed – is the cork tree. The parts of the trees that have been stripped glow a rich reddish brown. He vows from then on to drink only from wine bottles that have been cork-stopped.

The High Mountains of Portugal, Yann Martel

Of the three stories, my favourite was the third, about Peter, a widow who adopts a chimpanzee and takes it to Portugal to live with him. Yann Martel did, finally, tie the three stories somewhat together. I particularly liked that people in the village Peter moves to have taken to walking backwards at funerals as an expression of grief. The ending of the story, which I won’t spoil, was something of a downer — though not as much so as the ending of Island. The second section, billed as a ‘murder mystery’ on the cover, wasn’t, but did have quite an interesting digression about the similarities between Jesus Christ and Hercule Poirot.

They sit and watch the falling rain and its many consequences: the drops of water that swell up at the end of pine needles before falling, as if thoughtfully; the forming of puddles, complete with connecting rivers; the dampening of all sound except the patter of the rain; the creation of a dim, damp world of green and brown.

The High Mountains of Portugal, Yann Martel

On the whole, I’d say The High Mountains of Portugal was something of a let down, but that won’t stop me reading Rob Roy before my trip to Selkirk! Next, I’ll be reading The Goblin Emperor.

Rating: 2 out of 5.