Book review: The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

Yann Martel's evocation of bereaved characters fails to persuade
Yann Martel's evocation of bereaved characters fails to persuade
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Yann Martel’s three linked novellas are diverting but we might reasonably ask more of the Booker Prize winner

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel | Canongate, 329pp, £16.99

The High Mountains of Portugal

The High Mountains of Portugal

In the Biographia Literaria – an A Level set book in my youth – Coleridge, somewhat laboriously, distinguishes between Imagination and Fancy. His argument is not always easy to follow, Coleridge’s metaphysics being somewhat muddy, but essentially the Imagination is illuminating and transforming whereas Fancy is decorative and charming. He illustrates the difference by writing that Milton was an imaginative poet, Cowley a fanciful one. And this indeed, if you know both poets’ work, makes the distinction clear.

Yann Martell wrote The Life of Pi and woke up to find himself famous. It won the Booker Prize and has sold more copies than any other Booker winner. It deserved its success. It was charming and inventive and enjoyable. The story was improbable in the extreme, but readers were delighted by this exercise in make-believe. It was a splendid example of what Coleridge meant by Fancy.

The High Mountains of Portugal is in similar vein. It is made up of three novellas, loosely linked by the common theme of bereavement and consequent grief. This is a painful subject, but Martel treats it playfully. He charms it into insignificance. In the first novella, “Homeless”, set in Portugal in 1904, Tomas has recently lost the girl he loved, their young son and his father. His response is to start walking backwards: “his back to the world, his back to God, he is not grieving. He is objecting”. Well, if you say so. Then, reading the diaries of a 17th-century priest who ministered to the slaves in the Portuguese colony of Angola, he is fascinated by a crucifix the priest made which is now apparently in a village church in the high mountains of the title. His rich uncle lends him a car – though he can’t drive – and much of the novella tells of his journey and attempts to master this early automobile. Some will find this delightfully comic; I found it extremely tedious. When he eventually finds the crucifix, it is not what he expected, but seems appropriate to the young man who has turned his back on God.

The second Novella, “Homeward”, is set in a pathologist’s office in the 1930s. His wife engages him in a long discussion about the gospels, asking why Jesus always speaks in parables. The clue to understanding is, apparently, to be found in the novels of Agatha Christie, the crucifixion to be interpreted by the operation of Hercule Poirot’s little grey cells. The conversation leads to another death, and sorrow, but this death “would not have the neat resolution of the murder mysteries of which Maria and the doctor were so fond”.

In the last section, “Home”, a Canadian politician has recently been widowed. To assuage his grief he takes leave of parliament and sets off for a refuge for chimpanzees in Oklahoma. There, in a laboratory full of screaming and protesting apes, he makes a new friend, and the nature of this friendship not only serves to restore his equilibrium, but provides a link to the ending of the first novella, while a Christie novel, Appointment with Death (in a Portuguese translation) connects the politician’s story to the pathologist’s. This is quite nicely contrived, even though the links are entirely arbitrary, without necessary logic. They are amusing rather than illuminating.

Martel is a writer with a light touch, and a lively fancy. His work is engaging and agreeable. One has the impression that he enjoyed writing these stories, for which reason many will enjoy reading them.

But their relationship to life is slight. He talks of bereavement, grief and sorrow, but never persuasively or convincingly. Reading these novellas, I am reminded of the criticism of Charles Ryder’s Latin American paintings which Anthony Blanche delivers in Brideshead Revisited. They are not savage and forceful (as he had been told, they were). Quite the contrary. “I found,” he says, “a very naughty and very successful practical joke. It reminded me of dear Sebastian when he liked so much to dress up in false whiskers. It was charm again, my dear, simple, creamy English charm, playing tigers.” No penetrating Imagination, merely decorative Fancy.