Like everyone else I was blown away by Martel’s hit novel Life of Pi. I wondered what could he possibly produce after such an imaginative triumph. His High Mountains of Portugal novel, is his post-Pi novel and I dithered for ages about buying it, thinking it could only be a disappointment after the wonders of Pi. I found a low-priced copy on a sale last December, and bought it.
I’m 82 pages into the story, and am enjoying it immensely. Thus far, the book fits into the Quest/Adventure genre. Our hero, Tomas, inspired by an old century diary written by Father Ulisses who was marooned in the African colonies, sets out to find the mysterious artefact which Father Ulisses shipped back to Portugal. After some deductions, Tomas decided the likely location of the artefact will be in one of the remote churches situated in the High Mountains of Portugal.
Here the novel takes an unexpected swerve. Tomas has only ten days holiday in which to reach and search the region. How will he get there? His rich uncle lends him a fully equipped and kitted out shiny new Renault motor car! The story is set in the very early 1900s when motor cars were rare, and regarded as a new-fangled abomination in the age of horse drawn conveyances.
You and I, dear Reader, do not give one millisecond of thought about driving or travelling in our motor cars. To us, nothing could be more mundane or unremarkable. But to Tomas, passenger in the Renault, being hurtled around Lisbon by his Uncle’s enthusiastic combative driving, the experience is bewildering and terrifying. Martel shows us a car that leaps and pounces on the roads – we get a clear picture of a dangerous, mechanical beast! His writing is terrific. We experience the roaring, fumes, bumps, rattles, dodgy steering, and of course, the incredible speed. In third gear, no less! At one point a dizzying 50 kmph.
I think this is the first time I’ve ever read a story that deals with the period of moving out of the slow horse drawn age into the mechanical motorised age. What a traumatic transition it was, for all concerned : drivers, passengers, road users, and bystanders.
I actually don’t care whether Thomas succeeds in finding this historical artefact. Just to read about the trials and exhaustion of early motoring has been a joy in itself.