BOOK CLUB: The High Mountains of Portugal

 

‘We are risen apes, not fallen angels.’

I’m yet to meet somebody who doesn’t like Yann Martel’s masterpiece Life of Pi, a story about storytelling and coping with the trauma of being alive. This is the second novel I’ve read by the author, and one that’s been sitting patiently on my bookcase for two years while I was distracted by a few others. It’s a strange tale, in the same magical realist style of Life of Pi but, instead of one narrative, it is broken up into three - set at the beginning, middle and end of the twentieth century. Each follows a widowed man on a quest loosely connected with the remote rural landscape of northern Portugal.

The story is vibrant and, at times, painfully melancholy. Playing on the boundary between human and animal, it explores how we have become disconnected with our primitive selves, and how in rekindling this connection we can cope with the rawness of life. In our evolution we have gained so many luxuries - medicine, philosophy, the arts - but we have also forgotten how to deal with the inescapable facts of life. Why is it that animals accept death, but we are so terrified of it? Becoming human means we have become resistant to illness, violence and the threats of life ‘in the wild’ - but when we become resistant we forget they still exist - and how to deal with them when they inevitably arise.

The High Mountains of Portugal may not be as tightly woven as Life of Pi, but it’s just as powerful and difficult to put down. The book was published in 2016 by Canongate and can be found online or on the high street.