Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

Yann Martel wrote the Life of Pi, which won the Man Booker Prize and sold more than 12 million copies around the world.  It was also made into a movie that was subsequently nominated for 11 Academy Awards.  The question has been asked, can he emerge from the shadow of Life of Pi? I suppose my answer to that question would be that he is much too good a writer to ever be pigeonholed between the covers of one book--as spectacular as that book may be.  What makes his books so enjoyable to me, is the beauty of his wonderful descriptive prose.  It never disappoints.  Life of Pi was a wonderful book.  Beatrice & Virgil just destroyed me with its powerfully descriptive emotions.  And even though this book is a bit different (with its three seemingly unrelated stories that intersect finally in the end), it is the power of the language that he uses to examine grief, mourning, and awful loss, even using large doses of humor (admittedly dark sometimes), that ultimately prevails. 

In the first story of the book, set In Lisbon in 1904, a young man named Tomas discovers an old journal.  It hints at the existence of an extraordinary artifact that, if he can find it, would redefine history.  Traveling in one of Europe's earliest automobiles, he sets out in search of this strange treasure.  The second story occurs thirty-five years later, when a Portuguese pathologist devoted to the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie finds himself at the center of a mystery of his own and drawn into the consequences of Tomas's quest.  The last story occurs fifty years on, when a Canadian senator takes refuge in his ancestral village in northern Portugal, grieving the loss of his beloved wife.  But he arrives with an unusual companion, a chimpanzee.  And there the century-old quest will come to an unexpected conclusion.

In these stories Martel deals with religion, faith, saints, the ethics of primate research, and learning to live in the moment, with perceptive observations and thoughtful discourse, and always, always the beautiful language.

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