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On Proper Criticism: A review of ‘The High Mountains of Portugal’ by Yann Martel

The High Mountains of Portugal is Martel’s best work since Life of Pi — maybe even his best more generally — but you wouldn’t know it from reading the papers. Of course, ostensibly good books get panned all the time, and normally it’s not really worth remarking on (de gustibus non est disputandum, and all that), but in this case, things are a little different. In contrast with other poor receptions, the problem here isn’t necessarily with the conclusions the book’s critics have drawn but with the reasons they’ve provided for drawing them. If there aren’t many rules for the evaluation of fiction, the few that exist are absolutely essential; and chief among them is the obligation to find support for one’s claims. When a critic fails to do this, (especially when their review is a negative one) they do a disservice to the reading public. So with this article, we’re going to do something a little different: we’re going to review some reviews.

But first: the bare bones. The High Mountains has a triptych structure, with each third telling the story of a different man’s struggle with loss. The first, set in 1904, explores grief through defiance, with Tomás, its protagonist, literally turning his back on God and the world. The later two sections feature first, a pathologist named Eusebio, and later a Canadian Senator with his pet Chimpanzee, Peter and Odo respectively, all of whom have entirely different relationships to faith. The three sections take place in the same fictional universe, and each intersects with the others in exhilarating ways. But the whole of which these sections are the parts is much more profoundly coherent if viewed from the perspective not of the events they relate but of the ideas they explore — namely, grief, faith, story telling, and the meaning of death. This is one of the points that most of the book’s reviewers seem to have missed.

A review in The Guardian, for instance, glides over these subtleties with the wanton obtuseness of a high school English student: “A magical, or perhaps, symbolic, chimp features in the second section….” it says, “What it is supposed to symbolize remains entirely unclear”. But does it? After the rather obvious chimp-related revelations at the end of the book’s first section, and the prominent role played by Odo (the three middle letters of Godot) in the third, one would think the only thing “entirely unclear” in any of this, is that particular reviewer’s suitability to write about fiction. One Star.

But it isn’t just The Guardian: even a somewhat favourable review in The National Post manages to disappoint. To take one example, its author claims that some of the books insights fall flat for the modern reader, referencing what they see as its meditation on theodicy (the question of how God’s benevolence can be compatible with suffering in the world). Putting to one side the abundance of both faith and suffering in the world today, we’re left again with ham-fisted interpretation. A closer reading would make it clear that here Martel is, for better or worse, unconcerned with the rational status of a belief in God. What he’s really interested in is the recourse we have to belief as a means for dealing with grief, or for coming to terms with death — again, two of the book’s major preoccupations. As with the first above, this one fails to locate the work’s parts within the context of the whole. Two stars.

But perhaps a review in The Hindu, rather artlessly titled “No life after Pi”, comes closest to capturing the underlying thrust of what most of the negative reviews seem to be saying: the book is too intellectual. One passage in particular is routinely singled out, a section in part two in which the Gospels are (rather impressively) compared with the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie — described in The Hindu as having “all the verve of a dry-mouthed doctoral thesis.” Leaving its aesthetic merit to one side, the section in question clearly has a role to play in the coherence of the novel as a whole. Their suggestion that it serves “no value other than to establish the contention that even the most gifted writers may occasionally get carried away by the slickness of their prose” betrays a serious lack of attention to the structure of the work. One Star.

Like Martel’s other works, The High Mountains is unapologetically intellectual: it will require work on the part of the reader, and for this reason it just won’t be for everyone. But this is hardly a good reason not to recommend it. Like a good wine, its best features may be lost on the layperson, but they’re still there; and with the aid of a sommelier or even just some tasting notes, one can learn to seek them out, refining their palate in the process. Fiction ought to be the same. For those willing to engage with it, good literature abounds with pleasures buried just beneath the surface — though this might not be entirely evident on a first reading. This is where the critic comes in. But to do their job, they need to move past first impressions to engage with the work on its own terms. Only once they’ve done this can they hope to steer prospective readers towards works in which they might find something more profound than they are likely to just by flipping through the shelves at their local bookstore. They need to acknowledge that one’s first reactions to, say, Ulysses will likely be a lot like their first reactions to scotch, and that this has almost no bearing on the actual quality of either. Very few who’ve never had scotch are likely to enjoy it their first time, but with the help of someone knowledgeable, they might find reason to develop an interest. The same may well be true for the “long” and “tedious” parts of The High Mountains so derided in papers like The Hindu or The Guardian. And if so, (and we think we have good reason to think they’re of real value) then these reviews have been entirely unhelpful.

But all hope is not lost. The popular success of Life of Pi will no doubt guide readers towards its author’s new book in greater numbers than any review ever could; and with any luck they’ll be the sort of readers who might appreciate it. (If Life of Pi were read as a simple story about a tiger on a boat, after all, it wouldn’t have held nearly as much interest as it has). But for those unfamiliar with Mr. Martel, we hope you’ll take this review as a motivation to explore a little, to try something a little on the intellectual side.

As he himself notes in an earlier work of his (101 Letters to a Prime Minister), “a literary novel is a novel that makes the reader work” — so, get to work. We promise this one’s worth it.

Verdict: 5 Stars

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