Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Yann Martel: The High Mountains of Portugal (2016)

Martel's father was a French Canadian academic and then diplomat: Martel, like so many TCAs, lived all over the place as a child (Spain, Portugal, Alaska, Costa Rica etc.) and then continued to  travel as an adult (Mexico, Iran, Turkey, India etc.).  Though I try not to geek out too much about this and try not to pry, he now lives nearish to one of my very dear friends in Saskatoon, SK.  At one point she (my friend, that is) and the Martel family were on a cross country ski vacation in the same remote  Saskatchewan park.

I read this novel while I myself was travelling, which was kind of perfect.  I recommend the novel as an "on the road" read.  Indeed, the first of the three sections describes a Portuguese man in the 1930s driving one of the first automobiles, and hating it (which is gratifying to mull over when one is oneself on the umpteenth leg of a journey and driving, when one's legs ache with the desire to move, and eyes burn with the tedium of paying attention to highway highway highway).

The three sections are linked by references to an ape: in Darwinian fashion , the ape connects the branches of the family tree.  The novel is not about science though, really.  Like Life of Pi, it is about what we believe in and why.  How does faith fit in, and, for Martel, where does the magic of empathy, understanding and connection actually lie?  In High Mountains, as in Life of Pi, there is magic in kinship between animals who are seemingly separated by species and geography, but are actually not so different at all.

If third culture authors frequently consider the problems of leaving, moving on, and displacement, this novel considers the questions: who is left behind and how will they cope and what does the displacement of their loved ones mean for them?

In all three sections, a man is widowed (he is left, his loved ones move on without him).  In all three sections, the solution to isolation and desolation is recognising connection with an ape, an ape that is itself far away from home.

Put your faith in the foreigner, Martel seems to say, for within their terrifying, puzzling heart you will find the souls of your dearest departed loves.

In an era of increasing xenophobia, and escalating racial tension, this solution--look to the foreigner you want to consider atavistic and recognise that everything you value is in their breast--is shocking. To some, it may even read as blasphemous, but really it is a magical salvific delivered almost humourously: we are just apes; we wind up in unlikely places far from our birthplaces; we can figure out how to trust and even love each other.

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