I don't trust Yann Martel, because he succeeds at drawing me in emotionally and making me experience his meaning, rather than intellectually agreeing. I felt cheated by Life of Pi and betrayed by Beatrice and Virgil - while realizing that my reactions were exactly what he was after. So I couldn't keep away from The High Mountains of Portugal but I approached it cautiously, warily, ready to bolt. (This too is futile with Martel. You don't know what you've gotten into until you're submerged. But I persist in believing I can run away.)
I started Portugal concurrently with Paul Goldberg's The Yid, which is full of Kafkaesque, morbid, Yiddish humor. I thought this might help armor me against whatever Martel had in store, but really it confused me: I kept mistrusting Goldberg's cast and their quest, while Martel was just making me uncomfortable. "Never mind," I told myself repeatedly. "The stuff that's making me uncomfortable is just a gateway. It isn't what this book is really about."
So what IS the book really about? As with my previous run-ins with the novels of Yann Martel, I found myself saying "WTF just happened?" at the end. And then I thought about it. And then I realized that I had been on a journey toward grace throughout this novel. What happened was the simple elegance of "Behold." I am spellbound, trapped in an ethereal landscape of transient beauty, with glimpses of how the pieces fit together. I don't want to give up this dreamscape, or the dawning realization (through a mirror, dimly) that I've been following a map in a world filled with grace, throughout my whole life.
I’m glad I read these two books at the same time – and at THIS time, when I’m looking back at the mosaic of my life and finding pieces I never noticed before. Yann Martel knows how to draw the (reluctant, vigilant) reader into the story to reveal complex truths, while Goldberg’s gang of fatalists took reality and turned it into a play – and then argued about the back story even as they acted it out. It became for me a constant shift between fact and illusion, with no clear difference.
The reason I felt betrayed by Beatrice and Virgil was this: he started out saying he was NOT going to write a novel about the Holocaust – I specifically didn’t sign up for Holocaust! - and then he took me way down deep before I could escape. So here I am, tiptoeing out onto the thin ice of a new Yann Martel novel with the specter of the Holocaust threatening my every breath – and this is when I find out a man I knew 35 years ago was part of that story.
Anyway, Beatrice and Virgil left an indelible impression – one of horror and betrayal. (Oh, yes, it’s very well done, and I totally deserved it. Needed it. DIDN’T WANT IT.) But the mists of emotion and enlightenment that came from The High Mountains of Portugal are entirely different. As I look back at the guideposts he set firmly in place on this journey, I feel acceptance, inevitability, serenity. I don’t really want to be released from this spell.
Yes, I recommend The High Mountains of Portugal. I think there is wisdom in there. I think it may be the kind of wisdom you can't process intellectually - the kind Yann Martel excels at. The kind Siddhartha found, sitting by a river.