In mathematics, there is a concept known as the Butterfly Effect. Simply put it’s the theory that everything matters; that every event is linked. Through cause and effect – the limitless combinations of action and reaction – even the flutter of a butterfly’s wings can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world. This theory of chaos is one that runs through The High Mountains of Portugal, the latest novel by the Booker prize-winning Canadian, Yann Martel. Indeed it’s the thread that binds three ostensibly separate stories that compose the whole, connecting them across time and space.
It’s an ambitious idea which, from a variety of angles, explores intense love and its necessary corollary – crippling grief. And through these comfort-zone puncturing extremes, more fundamental questions are asked – of existence; of the possibility – promise – of the sacred, in the face of a reality circumscribed by its absence.
Given the themes the generation of pathos is vital, and in the crucial opening section Martel almost fails to deliver – by disrupting the sympathetic connection between protagonist and reader, with the bizarre; the comic, even. The device Martel chooses to express grief – one’s disenchantment with life and even anger with God, is… walking backwards. (As an aside, a standout example of generating pathos is found in The Solitude of Thomas Cave by Georgina Harding). Martel latterly uses the same hook, rather ingenuously, to explore how rituals form and take root, but as an expression of being in a state of standing revolution… Well, this reviewer found it counter-productive. That said, the first story does indeed work. The increase in tension, synched with the unwinding of the protagonist’s sanity, is tempered perfectly. And by the end, his exhaustion, frustration and myriad intersecting sorrows are palpable, convincing and powerfully brought across. Indeed, the ending of the first section defies expectation, is delicately layered and genuinely emotional.
From the central theme some secondary threads are spun – the relationships between man and machine as well as man and beast. Classical colonialism. And peasant, rural Europe, at the cusp of the modern age. At times the prose soars and is deeply affecting – and at other points the story idles and the tangents become distracting. But most of it works wonderfully.
“..we loved our son like the sea loves an island, always surrounding him with our arms, always touching him and crashing upon his shore with our care and concern. When he was gone, the sea had only itself to contemplate. Our arms folded onto nothing until they met their frame. We wept all the time..”
In conclusion, the strengths of this novel easily outweigh its weaknesses. Indeed the brilliance of some of the ideas must be underscored: at times the story turns on a sixpence, from a flat terra firma to stunning surrealism.
Any Cop?: Not every book can take your breath away – but this one will.