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Sunday Read: The new novel from Yann Martel, the bestselling Booker Prize-winner in history

Sunday Read: The new novel from Yann Martel, the bestselling Booker Prize-winner in history
The Facts Behind the Helsinki RoccamatiosSelfLife of PiBeatrice and VirgilThe High Mountains of Portugal

This Sunday Read features an excerpt from the new book by Yann Martel, The High Mountains of Portugal, which is to be published in February.

Martel won the Man Booker Prize in 2002 for Life of Pi, which sold more than 12 million copies worldwide, making him the bestselling Booker winner of all time. The film adaptation of the book earned 11 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, and won four (the most that year) including Best Director for Ang Lee.

Martel’s first novel, Self, was published in 1996, following a 1993 collection of short stories, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios. In the author’s note to Life of Pi, Martel writes that Self “vanished quickly and quietly”, and he is on record as saying it is a “terrible novel, and that he wishes it would disappear”. It was, however, shortlisted for the 21st Chapters/Books In Canada First Novel Award.

Life of Pi was Martel’s second novel, released in 2001, although it was rejected by at least five publishers before it was accepted.

In 2007, Martel was part of a delegation to the Canadian House of Commons to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Canada Council for the Arts. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was present in the House but “didn’t look up at the celebratory delegation nor offer words of congratulation on the council’s milestone”. In response, Martel began sending a book to Harper every fortnight, accompanied by a detailed letter explaining the choice. He never received a reply from the Prime Minister, and ended the experiment in 2011 after sending a total of 100 books, saying he was “tired of using books as political bullets and grenades”. A book-length account of the project, What Is Stephen Harper Reading?, was published in 2009.

The Canadian author’s third novel, Beatrice and Virgil, was published nine years after Life of Pi, in April 2010, and was not well received. The Guardian called it “by turns pretentious, humourless, tedious, and obvious”.

Canongate announced in September 2015 that it acquired the UK rights for Mantel’s new novel, and early responses have been more promising. Canongate publishing director Francis Bickmore said: “There are no tigers in this fabulous new book but it does explore our relationship to the natural world, and asks from where comes our humanity.”

About the book:

In Lisbon in 1904, a young man discovers an old journal. It hints at the existence of an extraordinary artefact that—if he can find it—would redefine history.

Some thirty-five years later, a Portuguese pathologist finds himself at the centre of a murder mystery.

Fifty years on, a Canadian senator takes refuge in northern Portugal, grieving the loss of his beloved wife.

Three linked stories. Three broken hearts. One exploration: what is a life without stories? The High Mountains of Portugal takes the reader on a road trip through Portugal in the last century—and through the human soul.

Read an excerpt, from Text Publishing:

His uncle beams, filled to the brim with pride and joy in his Gallic gewgaw. Tomás remains tight-lipped. He does not share his uncle’s infatuation with automobiles. A few of these newfangled devices have lately found their way onto the streets of Lisbon. Amidst the bustling animal traffic of the city, all in all not so noisy, these automobiles now roar by like huge, buzzing insects, a nuisance offensive to the ears, painful to the eyes, and malodorous to the nose. He sees no beauty in them. His uncle’s burgundy-coloured copy is no exception. It lacks in any elegance or symmetry. Its cabin appears to him absurdly oversized compared to the puny stable at the aft into which are stuffed the thirty horses. The metal of the thing, and there is much of it, glares shiny and hard—inhumanly, he would say.

He would happily be carted by a conventional beast of burden to the High Mountains of Portugal, but he is making the trip over the Christmas season, cumulating holiday time that is his due with the few days he begged, practically on his knees, from the chief curator at the museum. That gives him only ten days to accomplish his mission. The distance is too great, his time too limited. An animal won’t do. And so he has to avail himself of his uncle’s kindly offered but unsightly invention.

With a clattering of doors, Damiãno enters the courtyard bearing a tray with coffee and fig pastries. A stand for the tray is produced, as are two chairs. Tomás and his uncle sit down. Hot milk is poured, sugar is measured out. The moment is set for small talk, but instead he asks directly, “So how does it work, Uncle?”

He asks because he does not want to contemplate what is just beyond the automobile, fringing the wall of his uncle’s estate, next to the path that leads to the servants’ quarters: the row of orange trees. For it is there that his son used to wait for him, hiding behind a not-so-thick tree trunk. Gaspar would flee, shrieking, as soon as his father’s eyes caught him. Tomás would run after the little clown, pretending that his aunt and uncle, or their many spies, did not see him go down the path, just as the servants pretended not to see him entering their quarters. Yes, better to talk about automobiles than to look at those orange trees.

“Ah, well you should ask! Let me show you the marvel within,” replies his uncle, leaping up out of his seat. Tomás follows him to the front of the automobile as he unhooks the small, rounded metal hood and tips it forward on its hinges. Revealed are tangles of pipes and bulbous protuberances of shiny metal.

“Admire!” his uncle commands. “An in-line four-cylinder engine with a 3,054 cc capacity. A beauty and a feat. Notice the order of progress: engine, radiator, friction clutch, sliding-pinion gearbox, drive to the rear axle. Under this alignment, the future will take place. But first let me explain to you the wonder of the internal combustion engine.”

Book details


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