Literary Review

No life after Pi

Yann Martel's The High Mountains of Portugal  

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This appears to be a novel that Yann Martel was evidently uninspired to write.

An overpowering stench of formaldehyde hangs over virtually every page of Yann Martel’s latest offering. It isn’t merely because of the intensely vivid description of an autopsy procedure, complete with stomach-turning, chromatically rich characterisations of bodily fluids, some two-thirds of the way into the novel. The undercurrent of all three storyline sub-strands in The High Mountains of Portugal is of grief born of death of a loved one. That grief virtually seeps through the pages and envelopes the reader, and for the most part, it is with a heart bowed down by the weight of woe that you flip the pages.

Tragically, however, while the fictional melancholia is contagious, it is hard to empathise with the worldly plight of any of the central characters — or get into their lives. In the first of the strands, Tomas, a museum curator in Lisbon, tormented by the death of his wife and son, embarks on a foolhardy mission in search of a 17th-century artefact that he believes — on somewhat flimsy grounds — will “do nothing less than turn Christianity upside down.”

That enterprise sees him clamber nervously aboard a motorcar that he can barely negotiate, and head for the High Mountains. Events that unfold in his life on the road, including a car accident involving a child, connect him cosmically with the protagonists in the second and third sub-plots, which are spread out temporally over more than a century.

The reason for the utter lack of resonance with the storyline is somewhat easy to establish. Like Tomas struggling to control the automobile, Martel never really goes beyond the first gear of the narrative; even his prose, which can purr on 12 cylinders when in full flow, seems curiously stilted. Only in the third part does he step on the gas, but by then it’s a trifle too late.

For instance, Tomas’ sense of wonderment about the splendours of the automobile is anachronistically hard to share a century later. And the overlong soliloquies, of which there are several throughout the novel, are tedious in the extreme; one, in particular (an exploration of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries from the prism of the Gospels!) has all the verve of a dry-mouthed doctoral thesis. These passages serve no value other than to establish the contention that even the most gifted writers may occasionally get carried away by the slickness of their prose. At various points I found myself echoing the mortician Eusebio’s admonition to himself: “Enough of this prattle!”

As with Life of Pi and Beatrice and Virgil, Martel populates The High Mountains… with animal motifs: in this case, a chimpanzee, which turns up in the most unlikely places: on a crucifix, inside the belly of a dead man, and as the companion of a Canadian Senator. Perhaps there is another mystical understanding to be derived by reading these as allegories, as Martel himself advocates of stories from the life of Jesus. But the point that humans are risen apes, not fallen angels, is delivered with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

In many ways, The High Mountains… is a novel that Martel was evidently uninspired to write. That much can be reasonably gleaned from a passage early on in Life of Pi, where the narrator (“the author”) acknowledges that he was initially looking to write a novel set in Portugal in 1939, but had to abandon it because “there comes a moment when you realise… it won’t work. An element is missing, that spark that brings to life a real story… Your story is emotionally dead, that’s the crux of it.”

Would that Martel had trusted his instincts on this one! For, if this is the work he abandoned then it ought to have stayed abandoned. The three separate story strands in The High Mountains… may occasionally provide flashes of Martel’s lyrical prose, but as he himself put it prophetically, “it all adds up to nothing.” The passage of time since Life of Pi hasn’t exactly infused the novel with the “missing element” or the elusive spark.

The High Mountains of Portugal; Yann Martel, Penguin Random House, $27.

Venky Vembu is an editor with Business Line, and a whimsical writer and blogger.

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