Book review: Yann Martel’s easy-going surrealism is perfect for exploring paradox
The HIgh Mountains of Portugal, the Booker-winning author’s latest novel, is actually three ingeniously connected stories, with the final section a powerful exposition of the unbreakable bond and unbridgeable gap between man and beast
The High Mountains of Portugal
by Yann Martel
The high mountains of Portugal, in Yann Martel’s novel of that name, turn out to be grassy uplands rather than high mountains; and the book turns out to be three stories rather than a novel. The stories, connected ingeniously, vary greatly in tone and quality. The first two display so little of the author’s narrative skill that they may offer more temptation to stop reading than to go on. Liking the last part of the book much better, I could wish that it stood alone.
In Martel’s Booker-winning Life of Pi, the author within the story tells us that he went to India with the intention of writing a novel set in Portugal. Then he met the Indian who told him the tale of Pi, and Portugal was forgotten. It’s recollected in the first part of this book in great detail: “He heads off down Rua São Miguel on to Largo São Miguel and then Rua de São João da Praça before turning on to Arco de Jesus.” This sort of street-rosary may delight Lisbon initiates but to others is made interesting only by the fact that the protagonist, Tomas, is walking backwards, and that he always does so. After some elaborate rationales for walking backwards, and a farcical encounter with a lamp post, we learn that he walks with “his back to the world, his back to God”, not because he is grieving for the sudden, recent death of his wife, his child and his father, but because “he is objecting”.
How much of this, other than the street names, is the reader to accept as plausible? While I’m reading a story, I want to be able to suspend disbelief; the more questions of authorial reliability force themselves on me, the weaker the hold of the narrative. This is a naive approach to fiction, granted, but a tough one, since intellect, cleverness, charm, wit, tact, even fact cannot conceal incredibility. The importance of plausibility to realistic fiction is obvious, but it may be even more important to fantasy, where its failure dumps the reader out of the book on to the cold hill’s side where no birds sing.
However, if a writer works on the principle that fiction isn’t true, and the reader accepts that principle, then anything goes, and Tomas can walk backwards clear across Lisbon as easily as he could walk forwards. Surrealism is very like wishful thinking – you get to make up the rules as you go; the operative word is “somehow”. So a man who habitually walks backwards can continue to hold a job as assistant curator in the National Museum of Ancient Art. He can recognise from a passage in a 17th-century diary that a certain sculpture found on an island in the Gulf of Guinea “would do nothing less than turn Christianity upside down”.
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Though he has no idea what the sculpture is, and only the vaguest notion where, he sets off to locate it, walking backwards, of course, until provided with a “brand new 14-horsepower, four-cylinder Renault”, which he doesn’t know how to drive, but drives on anyway through a scenario of amusing ludicrousness to the High Mountains of Portugal, where he finds the object of his quest.
The second section of the book takes place in Lisbon 30 years later, in 1938 (the novel abandoned for the sake of Pi was to be about Lisbon in 1939). The tale meanders via disquisitions on religion to an autopsy, described in nauseating detail, at the end of which surrealism prevails entirely and a living woman is sewn inside the dead man’s body along with an ape and a bear cub. The themes of religion, of grief and of animals connect the story to those that precede and follow it.
I haven’t hesitated to reveal events, because in the absence of causality plot evaporates; when everything is a surprise, nothing can be a surprise. The third story, the last part of the novel, works on a different and deeper level. Despite some vast, casual unlikelihoods, it is far more considerate of the reader’s wish to be allowed to believe what is happening, and more successfully marries event to emotion and distinguishes miracle from mere unreason. The narration is less rococo; scenes aren’t played for mere farce or shock. The theme of the animal, the relation of human and animal, has come to predominate, and on this subject Martel is an original, strange and subtle thinker.
It’s a timely subject. We’re fortunate to have brilliant writers using their fiction to meditate on a paradox we need urgently to consider – the unbridgeable gap and the unbreakable bond between human and animal, our impossible self-alienation from our world. Karen Joy Fowler’s Booker-shortlisted We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves handled the relationship of ape and human realistically, with a powerful sense of the tragic potential. Martel is happier, more easy-going, and his semi-surreal, semi-absurdist mode is well suited to exploring the paradox. The moral and spiritual implications of his tale have, in the end, a quality of haunting tenderness.