Thursday, February 8, 2018

Yann Martel - The High Mountains of Portugal

The author of the bestselling "Life of Pi" returns to the storytelling power and luminous wisdom of his master novel.
In Lisbon in 1904, a young man named Tomas discovers an old journal. It hints at the existence of an extraordinary artifact that if he can find it would redefine history. Traveling in one of Europe s earliest automobiles, he sets out in search of this strange treasure.
Thirty-five years later, a Portuguese pathologist devoted to the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie finds himself at the center of a mystery of his own and drawn into the consequences of Tomas s quest.
Fifty years on, a Canadian senator takes refuge in his ancestral village in northern Portugal, grieving the loss of his beloved wife. But he arrives with an unusual companion: a chimpanzee. And there the century-old quest will come to an unexpected conclusion.
"The High Mountains of Portugal" part quest, part ghost story, part contemporary fable offers a haunting exploration of great love and great loss. Filled with tenderness, humor, and endless surprise, it takes the reader on a road trip through Portugal in the last century and through the human soul."

Comment: I wasn't thinking about reading this book but the last time I went to my local library, I saw it on the highlights shelf and told myself, since it's a small book, why not trying it and that was why I read it in these last days. I was also positively surprised.

This book tells three stories that seem to not have much in common apart from one little element and the notion of grief and loss.
Each story is set in Portugal, in different years. The first in 1904, the second in 1938 and the last one in the 80s. All stories focus on a main character but it's what each character does that makes the stories develop and connect. The title comes from the main location mentioned in the three stories, in the first the main character wants to drive there in one of the first cars that existed in the country, the second lives close by and the third will eventually go to live there permanently. The most surprising element, though, despite the reference to high mountains, the country doesn't really have them so... what is the purpose behind all this?

This fictional book is labeled as magic realism by many and although I can totally understand that description, I think this is mostly a very well done allegory and metaphor.
This is not the type of book one should read thinking about all the lack of reality scenes and "rules" because the aim is clearly to convey and idea with seemingly random facts but that actually make sense if one thinks about the big picture.

I haven't read Life of Pi, the book that brought fame to this author but by glimpsing some comments I've come to realize the style is the same as here, it depended on how people saw the twists.
I liked reading this book, especially some specific scenes I really found amusing but deeply explored. 

Of the three parts, the one I disliked less was the first and maybe that is why I didn't think this book was better than my opinion ended up being, after all. I just think it's too weird to start with and the characters not as engaging. The travel of Tomás, a man who lost his family except for a rich uncle, to the high mountains of Portugal, looking for a crucifix that came from Angola centuries ago by the hands of a missionary priest is interesting but for me, no more than that. It provided some fun scenes, lots of philosophical content but it was meh for me.

The second part was the one I really loved. I think the metaphors, the parallelism between Christianism and Agatha Christie's novels was superb, imaginative and I devoured those pages. The story's finale is probably where the magic realism comes from but I found it perfect.
The third story is more contemporary, it features a Canadian senator and a chimpanzee but it's a beautiful story and the end of it (therefore, the book too) is not what I expected, but I think it was suitable.

The beauty of these little stories is the message given. There's something for the reader to find out here, to process and I really appreciated the more evocative and raw feelings behind all the scenes we read about here. The author is exploiting the notion of grief and how it can affect people and I really liked all the more philosophical/emotional content here. I wouldn't think about any of these things this way but I felt captivated by the author's allegories and ideas and what I (supposedly) should be focusing on.

Of course, this means the story line can seem a bit too weird, filled with crazy stuff, but even that has a good message if one looks closely. I just think one needs to be concentrated and interested in reading this, in being in the right state of mind to fully appreciate it.
Plus, I could smile every time a Portuguese word/location was mentioned and that is always special for me, to imagine others getting a little glimpse of my country.
I can't say I'll run after every book by this author, but for me, this one was special for sure.
Grade: 8/10

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