Jeremy Simmons reviews Yann Martel’s latest, praising the novel’s magical realism as a new form of modern mythology.
Yann Martel, The High Mountains of Portugal (Spiegal & Grau, 2016) 345pp.
Three stories bound to each other, stretching across a hundred years. Turn of the century automobiles, a man inside a suitcase…and a chimpanzee. In Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal it’s not immediately clear if we’re reading magical realism (formerly called ‘fabulism’ for those who recall Stanislaw Lem, Borges or Calvino) or something that would be better described as modern mythology.
Tomàs, the first of three protagonists, walks backwards everywhere he goes. This is unquestionably odd behavior but doesn’t by itself project a story into the realm of magical realism. Everyone else around that character acting nonplussed about his walking backwards? Okay, now we do have a magical realism.
I could say that I’m reminded of Bakapolous, Alissa Nutting or even Voltaire’s Candide as I read Martel’s quasi-catholic fairy tale with its hapless people stumbling through a world so much bigger than they understand, but I’d rather turn it around and give this author the credit of saying maybe Bakapolous readers should be referencing Martel. His prose is spare and manages to paint vivid Goyas of loneliness, tragedy and the bizarre set against sparse terrain among the admittedly not-quite mountains (mostly just hills) in Portugal where three tales unspool between three cardinal points in time, centered on a small, nameless town haunted by the death of a young boy. Superstition, calamity and what might be an apotheosis are carefully folded into these three tales of death and the new life each death creates, with sufficient dramatic power to indeed make mountains from mere hills.
Yet this is not an entirely depressing read. The High Mountains of Portugal has its somber moments and without these the narrative would suffer a critical loss of gravitas, but a sense of the innocent hope in all humans, however block-headed it may be, carries the narrative on its paternal shoulders throughout the book. In its more profound stretches, especially during the doctor’s exam, and the gut-wrenching conclusion, Martel doesn’t bother with a lazy show of dramatic force. Instead, we’re treated to the stories of three simple people who move recklessly, blindly and inexplicably through the lives of other simple people until a single thread of pure storytelling gold joins it all together into an ending you may have suspected all along, but never thought would happen. Having wrought a fairytale universe just real enough to make us forget its dryadic underpinnings, Martel himself emerges as the masterful sorcerer who can cast that spell so rare even among talented writers: you may close this book after reading its closing lines and not only have enjoyed it, but be glad you read it.
Some readers might find their minds drifting during the build-up that Martel creates for each of these three tales that make up the narrative. Modern readers in particular may grow agitated by the author’s deliberate pacing; those whose collective reading patience has been pruned mercilessly by repeated brute-force attacks from today’s denuded news articles, bestsellers and every other species of text out there, distilled down to their meanest elements. The High Mountains of Portugal isn’t topic sentence/develop thesis/summary kind of writing. It follows something of a stream of consciousness, rather than an orderly outline. In this way the text mimics life, which so often rebels against even the simplest plans and predications we make for it. If you, as a reader, are interested in fast-paced, fast-resolved storytelling, then I suggest you look elsewhere. The storytelling here is every bit as important as the story itself, but it takes someone with Yann Martel’s chops to deliver it. Readers of his Life of Pi will recognize the ‘journey’ tale here, and the author has invited you on that journey into a vanished world. By its end, you might be asking if it was three journeys, or one.
Jeremy Simmons is a writer, artist and game designer who keeps very late hours. His writing explores dreams (and nightmares), time and the inexplicable nature of the human condition. His work has appeared in Best Modern Voices, ShortVine and The News Record, among others.