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A trek through The High Mountains of Portugal'

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Yann Martel's latest novel a generation-spanning narrative

Magical realism has become something of a go-to in the realm of literary fiction in recent years. While there have always been practitioners of said magical thinking, it seems that more and more authors have been dipping their toes into that pool or even diving in headfirst.

As with any burgeoning crest of stylistic popularity, the degree of success varies wildly from work to work. Some use magical realism to plumb new depths and explore new ideas, while others seemingly just haphazardly tacked on some weirdness so that they might exploit a trend.

Author Yann Martel established himself as firmly in the former camp with the bestselling 'Life of Pi.' His latest offering 'The High Mountains of Portugal' (Spiegel & Grau, $27) is a 20th century-spanning triptych, spinning three stories connected across the years in ways both subtle and overt.

The first 'Homeless' - takes place in 1904. A young man named Tomas is lost in grief over the loss of his lover and child; so huge is his sadness that it compels him to spend his life walking backwards. In the course of his work at a museum, he discovers a mysterious journal that seems to indicate the existence of an undiscovered relic a hand-hewn crucifix of purported magnificence. The desire to track down this artifact consumes him - so much so that he borrows his uncle's automobile (one of the first in Europe) to drive into the High Mountains of Portugal in hopes of tracking it down.

The second part 'Homeward' brings us to the office of a Portuguese pathologist in the late 1930s. He and his wife are devotees of Agatha Christie, their mutual love of mystery novels indicative of a larger and lifelong love. Late one night, a woman shows up at his office door demanding that he perform an autopsy on her dead husband. Despite his misgivings, he acquiesces, only to discover that this will be like no other procedure that he has ever performed. The bizarre results tie the good doctor in with the journey undertaken by Tomas decades before.

The third and final installment is 'Home.' In the 1980s, Canadian senator Peter Tovy is adrift. His wife Clara, the love of his life, has passed away. He has cordial, but distant relationships with his remaining family his sister, his son and is at a loss regarding what he might do with himself. On a government trip to Oklahoma, Tovy finds himself at a primate research facility. He makes an inexplicable connection with a chimp named Odo; without understanding why, he decides to purchase Odo and move to Portugal a homeland his family left when he was just a toddler to begin a new life and carve out a whole new life.

A constant in Martel's work has been an exploration of the connection between humanity and the 'other;' whether the other is animal consciousness or a higher spiritual power or something else entirely, Martel captures the complexities of man's relationships with influences both external and internal. Those dynamics of interaction serve to create complex and compelling characters, the sorts of people that are inherently unforgettable.

'The High Mountains of Portugal' explores that relationship with animal consciousness throughout, asking demanding questions regarding the nature of being. Martel is unafraid to offer his own definition of the soul, one that is far more nuanced and complex than religion might lead one to believe.

There's also a deftness of phrase to Martel's work that leads to a rich and layered reading experience. He tosses off exquisitely constructed sentences that are beautifully descriptive while also seeming just the slightest bit off-kilter. However, that imbalance rarely detracts from the experience. Quite the opposite in fact that ever-so-slight loss of equilibrium results in prose that occasionally baffles, but delightfully so.

At its heart, 'The High Mountains of Portugal' is a narrative built upon our inherent need to discover outside explanations for our inner existences. Martel's world is one where the inexplicable need never be truly explained, where all quests are one quest. Any meanings we uncover regarding life and love might be our own, but our connections can be and often are - universal.


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