“We may define therapy as a search for value.”
  —Abraham Maslow

High Mountains: High Ratings

Yann Martel is the author of Life of Pi. His latest book The High Mountains of Portugal, released in 2016, explores themes of grief and loss, faith and redemption, religious epiphany, and meaningful living.  These themes and others are at work in the book at all times, but operate quietly beneath a playful surface, at times humorous, at times very gripping for its suspense and dramatic tension.  For literary-minded readers, the book offers a treasure chest of sparkling wording, compelling human eccentricity, and a tasteful appreciation of the cruel hand of Fate.

The book functions on a three-part structure that engages the reader through interlocking tales.  It is a common enough conceit in storytelling these days for authors to suspend the revelation of how different threads that do not seem related ultimately are.  Martel’s subtle addition to this device is to match form to content, such that particular themes amplify from the treatment.  In particular, a tripartite structure feeds the book’s abiding reconsideration of the Christian faith, itself a three-part illumination, consisting of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Did Martel intend this and other such parallels?  Read the amusing middle pages about Agatha Christie novels and judge for yourself!

Then enjoy the book’s deep and ubiquitous symbolism, which need never fully reduce to mundane equivalences.  In fact, the book’s symbolism soars for being allusive without being didactic or simplistic.  What to make, for example, of the repeated references to the Iberian rhinoceros and its noble presence in Portugal before going extinct?  Might it not represent a kind of lost perfection, which is a main preoccupation of the book?  Yes, but it’s also a modern representation of the unicorn, the medieval animal trope for Jesus Christ, another preoccupation. Martel is a true master at handling symbolism lightly yet undeniably.  He is especially good at it with animals in the mix.

One animal in particular also stands out in this novel as possibly Martel’s greatest achievement in developing a character.  You will know that character once you spend time together.  You may find yourself laughing a lot as you read, shaking your head with delight or bemused disbelief, wanting more, always more.  There is a story about Fyodor Dostoyevsky, author of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, that he regarded Prince Myshkin, the title character of The Idiot, as his personal favorite among his creations.  Martel would have every right to hold his new character in equal esteem. He would also have similar reasons to in that both unlikely cast members manifest and evoke spiritual ideals.

The High Mountains of Portugal is another great rhapsody on life from the unique and colorful imagination of one of our most daring contemporary writers.  Here, Yann Martel further carves out a literary space all his own, one that blurs and reinvents the lines between realism, fantasy, and possibility.  His novels—this one heading the list—take readers into a paradoxical new understanding of what being human really means, made possible through the playful narrative foil of participating animals.  The book will not disappoint if you enjoy solid character development, historical curios, intelligent and illuminating digression, and a story that rewards you for pausing now and then to do some personal reflection about its myriad implications.  For better or worse, one or two of them may never resolve.

 

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