The High Mountains of Portugal: Yann Martel’s Complex, Cerebral Pilgrimage

Yann Martel. He is definitely a big name in Canadian Literature. CanLit as we like to call it. His bestseller Life of Pi, won all sorts of accolades including the Man Booker Prize and was turned into an Academy Award-winning film of the same name. Yet, for all the regard he has gotten, Martel remains a polarizing and divisive figure among readers. I don’t mean that in the political pundit, analyst sort of way, it just that he seems to be a guy that everyone has a reaction to or about.

Take Life of Pi for instance. I know plenty of people who loved it, and many others who most certainly did not. Now while Martel is by no means the first writer to fall into this circumstance, he does seem to be one that is mentioned frequently or – at the very least – more so than most.

His new novel The High Mountains of Portugal will likely be no different. I myself have mixed feelings on it. On the one hand, it has a brilliant use of  language – showing Martel’s skill as a writer’s writer – wonderful allegories, and a subtly powerful ending, which I thoroughly enjoyed. On the other hand, it felt unnecessarily complex at times.

The book is broken down into three parts that seemingly go unconnected until the final pages. It’s a bit of a shame, because the final story Home, is far superior than its two predecessors. At times, it felt like I was reading three separate tales, though in the back of my mind I knew they were going to link up in some way.

That’s not to say it was bad writing, the actual words are superb, its the storyline that was bordering of tedium. And yet, for all the hardships I had with the first two, I was completely engrossed with the finale, perhaps simply because it was the most developed character-wise.

Two things did stand out for me: one was the religious element. By this I don’t mean to say that it was a Christian, preachy story, rather the novel – especially the first tale Homeless took on the shape of a pilgrimage. In fact, shortly before writing High Mountains, Martel informed me that he recently the famous Camino de Santiago de Compostela (The Way of St. James in English) walk in Spain. Much was similar between that journey and the one the characters undergo in both Homeless and Home.

The second aspect was a familiar Martel trope – his use of animals. While in Life of Pi it was a Bengal Tiger, among others, each story in The High Mountains of Portugal, features a chimpanzee in some way – from religious artifact to pet and travel companion. Perhaps that is why I enjoyed the third story the best; it really explored the relationship between man and ape, man and animal, man and creature.

So, ultimately, what do I think of The High Mountains of Portugal? Complex, emotional, perhaps needlessly so. Yet, it is also a novel that has stuck with me for a whole host of reasons, which is a testament to Martel. Plus, I enjoyed it more than Pi, so I will consider it a success.


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