Happy New Year! We’re starting off with a bang by bringing you an extract of Yann Martel’s gorgeous new novel, The High Mountains of Portugal, which will be on bookshop shelves in three weeks. Martel’s Man Booker prize-winning Life of Pi sold more than ten million copies worldwide and was adapted into a highly acclaimed feature film. The High Mountains of Portugal is a crowd pleaser in the same vein: entertaining and thought provoking, in true Martel style. It’s a colourful, rollicking journey through Portugal told in three intersecting stories interwoven with delightful historical detail. Read on to get a taste of this wonderful new novel.
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.”
He points with a finger that aims to make visible the magic that takes place within the opaque walls of the engine. “Here moto-naphtha vapour is sprayed by the carburetor into the explosion chambers. The magnet activates the sparking plugs; the vapour is thereby ignited and explodes. The pistons, here, are pushed down, which...”
Tomás understands nothing. He stares dumbly. At the end of the triumphant explanations, his uncle reaches in to pick up a thick booklet lying on the seat of the driving compartment. He places it in his nephew’s hand. “This is the automobile manual. It will make clear what you might not have understood.”
Tomás peers at the manual. “It’s in French, Uncle.”
“Yes. Renault Frères is a French company.”
“I’ve included a French-Portuguese dictionary in your kit. You must take utmost care to lubricate the automobile properly.”
“Lubricate it?” His uncle might as well be speaking French.
Lobo ignores his quizzical expression. “Aren’t the mudguards handsome? Guess what they’re made of?” he says, slapping one. “Elephant ears! I had them custom-made as a souvenir from Angola. The same with the outside walls of the cabin: only the finest-grain elephant hide.”
“What’s this?” asks Tomás.
“The horn. To warn, to alert, to remind, to coax, to complain.” His uncle squeezes the large rubber bulb affixed to the edge of the automobile, left of the steerage wheel. A tuba-like honk, with a little vibrato, erupts out of the trumpet attached to the bulb. It is loud and attention-getting. Tomás has a vision of a rider on a horse carrying a goose under his arm like a bagpipe, squeezing the bird whenever danger is nigh, and cannot repress a cough of laughter.
“Can I try it?”
He squeezes the bulb several times. Each honk makes him laugh. He stops when he sees that his uncle is less amused and endeavours to pay attention to the renewed motoring mumbo-jumbo. These are more venerations than clarifications. If his relative’s smelly metallic toy could show feelings, it would surely turn pink with embarrassment.
They come to the steerage wheel, which is perfectly round and the size of a large dinner plate. Reaching into the driving compartment again, Lobo places a hand on it. “To turn the vehicle to the left, you turn the wheel to the left. To turn the vehicle to the right, you turn the wheel to the right. To drive straight, you hold the wheel straight. Perfectly logical.”
Tomás peers closely. “But how can a stationary wheel be said to turn to the left or to the right?” he asks.
His uncle searches his face. “I’m not sure I understand what there is not to understand. Do you see the top of the wheel, next to my hand? You see it, yes? Well, imagine that there’s a spot there, a little white spot. Now, if I turn the wheel this way”—and here he pulls on the wheel—“ do you see how that little white spot moves to the left? Yes? Well then, the automobile will turn to the left. And do you see that if I turn the wheel that way”—and here he pushes the wheel—“ do you see how the little white spot moves to the right? In that case, the automobile will turn to the right. Is the point obvious to you now?”
Tomás’s expression darkens. “But look”—he points with a finger—“at the bottom of the steerage wheel! If there were a little white spot there, it would be moving in the opposite direction. You might be turning the wheel to the right, as you say, at the top, but at the bottom you’re turning it to the left. And what about the sides of the wheel? As you’re turning it both right and left, you’re also turning one side up and the other side down. So either way, in whichever direction you spin the wheel, you’re simultaneously turning it to the right, to the left, up, and down. Your claim to be turning the wheel in one particular direction sounds to me like one of those paradoxes devised by the Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea.”
Lobo stares in consternation at the steerage wheel, the top of it, the bottom of it, the sides of it. He takes a long, deep breath. “Be that as it may, Tomás, you must drive this automobile the way it was designed. Keep your eyes on the top of the steerage wheel. Ignore all the other sides. Shall we move on? There are other details we must cover, the operation of the clutch and of the change-speed lever, for example...” He accompanies his talk with hand and foot gestures, but neither words nor mummery spark any comprehension in Tomás. For example, what is “torque”? Did the Iberian Peninsula not get enough torque with Grand Inquisitor Torquemada? And what sane person could make sense of “double declutch”?
“I have supplied you with a few items that you’ll find useful.”
His uncle pulls open the door of the cabin, which is located in its back half. Tomás leans forward to peer in. There is relative gloom within. He notes the features of the cabin. It has the elements of a domestic space, with a black sofa of the finest leather and walls and a ceiling of polished cedar strips. The front window and the side windows look like the windows of an elegant home, boasting clear, good-quality panes and gleaming metal sashes. And the back window above the sofa, so neatly framed, could well be a painting hanging on a wall. But the scale of it! The ceiling is so low. The sofa will accommodate no more than two people comfortably. Each side window is of a size that will allow only a single person to look out of it. As for the back window, if it were a painting, it would be a miniature. And to get into this confined space, one must bend down to get through the door. What happened to the opulent openness of the horse-drawn carriage? He pulls back and gazes at one of the automobile’s side mirrors. It might plausibly belong in a washroom. And didn’t his uncle mention something about a fire in the engine? He feels an inward sinking. This tiny habitation on wheels, with bit parts of the living room, the washroom, and the fireplace, is a pathetic admission that human life is no more than this: an attempt to feel at home while racing towards oblivion.
He has also noticed the multitude of objects in the cabin. There is his suitcase, with his few personal necessities. More important, there is his trunk of papers, which contains all sorts of essential items: his correspondence with the secretary of the Bishop of Bragança and with a number of parish priests across the High Mountains of Portugal; the transcription of Father Ulisses’ diary; archival newspaper clippings on the occurrences of fires in village churches in that same region; excerpts from the logbook of a Portuguese ship returning to Lisbon in the mid-seventeenth century; as well as various monographs on the architectural history of northern Portugal. And usually, when he is not carrying it in his pocket—a folly, he reminds himself—the trunk would hold and protect Father Ulisses’ invaluable diary. But suitcase and trunk are crowded alongside barrels, boxes, tin containers, and bags. The cabin is a cave of goods that would glut the Forty Thieves.
“Ali Baba, Uncle Martim! So many things? I’m not crossing Africa. I’m only going to the High Mountains of Portugal, some few days away.”
“You’re going farther than you think,” his uncle replies. “You’ll be venturing into lands that have never seen an automobile. You’ll need the capacity to be autonomous. Which is why I’ve included a good canvas rain tarp and some blankets, although you might be better off sleeping in the cabin. That box there contains all the motoring tools you’ll need. Next to it is the oiling can. This five-gallon metal barrel is full of water, for the radiator, and this one of moto-naphtha, the automobile’s elixir of life. Resupply yourself as often as you can, because at some point you’ll have to rely on your own stock. Along the way, look out for apothecaries, bicycle shops, blacksmiths, ironmongers. They’ll have moto-naphtha, though they may give it another name: petroleum spirit, mineral spirit, something like that. Smell it before you buy it. I’ve also provided you with victuals. An automobile is best operated by a well-fed driver. Now, see if these fit.”
From a bag on the floor of the cabin, his uncle pulls out a pair of pale leather gloves. Tomás tries them on, baffled. The fit is snug. The leather is pleasingly elastic and creaks when he makes a fist.
“Thank you,” he says uncertainly.
“Take good care of them. They’re from France too.”
Next his uncle hands him goggles that are big and hideous. Tomás has hardly put them on when his uncle brings out a beige coat lined with fur that reaches well below his knees.
“Waxed cotton and mink. The finest quality,” he says.
Tomás puts it on. The coat is heavy and bulky. Finally, Lobo slaps a hat on him that has straps that tie under the chin. Gloved, goggled, coated, and hatted, he feels like a giant mushroom. “Uncle, what is this costume for?”
“For motoring, of course. For the wind and the dust. For the rain and the cold. It is December. Have you not noticed the driving compartment?”
He looks. His uncle has a point. The back part of the automobile consists of the enclosed cubicle for the passengers. The driving compartment in front of it, however, is open to the elements but for the roof and a front window. There are no doors or windows on either side. Wind, dust, and rain will easily come in. He grouses internally. If his uncle hadn’t cluttered the cabin with so much gear, making it impossible for him to sit within, he could take shelter there while Sabio drove the machine.
His uncle presses on. “I’ve included maps as good as they exist. When they’re of no help, rely on the compass. You’re heading north-northeast. The roads of Portugal are of the poorest quality, but the vehicle has a fine suspension system—leaf springs. They will handle any ruts. If the roads get to you, drink plenty of wine. There are two wineskins in the cabin. Avoid roadside inns and stagecoaches. They are not your friends. It’s understandable. A degree of hostility is to be expected from those whose livelihood the automobile directly threatens. Right, as for the rest of the supplies, you’ll figure out what’s what. We should get going. Sabio, are you ready?”
“Yes, senhor,” replies Sabio with military promptness.
“Let me get my jacket. I’ll drive you to the edges of Lisbon, Tomás.”
His uncle returns to the house. Tomás doffs the ludicrous motoring costume and returns it to the cabin. His uncle bounces back into the courtyard, a jacket on his back, gloves upon his hands, his cheeks flushed with excitement, exuding a nearly terrifying joviality.
“By the way, Tomás,” he bellows, “I forgot to ask: Why on earth do you so badly want to go to the High Mountains of Portugal?”
“I’m looking for something,” Tomás replies.
Tomás hesitates. “It’s in a church,” he finally says, “only I’m not sure which one, in which village.”
His uncle stands next to him and studies him. Tomás wonders whether he should say more. Whenever his uncle comes to the Museum of Ancient Art, he gazes at the exhibits with glazed eyes.
“Have you heard of Charles Darwin, Uncle?” Tomás asks.
“Yes, I’ve heard of Darwin,” Lobo replies. “What, is he buried in a church in the High Mountains of Portugal?” He laughs. “You want to bring his body back and give it pride of place in the Museum of Ancient Art?”
“No. Through my work I came upon a diary written on São Tomé, in the Gulf of Guinea. The island has been a Portuguese colony since the late fifteenth century.”
“A miserable one. I stopped there once on my way to Angola. I thought I might invest in some cocoa plantations there.”
“It was an important place during the slave trade.”
“Well, now it’s a producer of bad chocolate. Beautiful plantations, though.”
“No doubt. By a process of deduction involving three disparate elements—the diary I’ve just mentioned, the logbook of a ship returning to Lisbon, and a fire in a village church in the High Mountains of Portugal—I have discovered an unsuspected treasure and located it, approximately. I’m on the brink of a great find.”
“Are you? And what is this treasure, exactly?” his uncle asks, his eyes steady on Tomás.
Tomás is sorely tempted. All these months he has told no one, especially not his colleagues, about his discovery, nor even about his research. He did it all on his own time, privately. But a secret yearns to be divulged. And in mere days the object will be found. So why not his uncle?
“It is...a religious statuary, a crucifix, I believe,” he replies.
“Just what this Catholic country needs.”
“No, you don’t understand. It’s a very odd crucifix. A wondrous crucifix.”
“Is it? And what does it have to do with Darwin?”
“You’ll see,” Tomás replies, flushing with zeal. “This Christ on the Cross has something important to say. Of that, I am certain.”
His uncle waits for more, but more does not come. “Well, I hope it makes your fortune. Off we go,” he says. He climbs into the driver’s seat. “Let me show you how to start the engine.” He claps his hands and roars, “Sabio!”
Sabio steps forward, his gaze fixed on the automobile, his hands at the ready.
“Before starting the engine, the moto-naphtha tap has to be turned to open—good man, Sabio—the throttle handle, here under the steerage wheel, has to be placed at half-admission—so—and the change-speed lever set at the neutral point, like this. Next you flick the magneto switch—here on the dashboard—to on. Then you open the lid of the hood—there’s no need to open the whole hood, you see that small lid there at the front?—and you press down once or twice on the float of the carburetor to flood it. See how Sabio does it? You close the lid, and all that’s left after that is turning the starting handle. Then you sit in the driver’s seat, take the hand brake off, get into first gear, and away you go. It’s child’s play. Sabio, are you ready?”
Sabio faces the engine squarely and sets his legs apart, feet solidly planted on the ground. He bends down and grips the starting handle, a thin rod protruding from the front of the automobile. His arms straight, his back straight, he suddenly snaps the handle upward with great force, pulling himself upright, then, upon the handle completing a half-turn, he shoves down on it, using the full weight of his body, before working the upswing as he did the first time. He performs this circular action with enormous energy, with the result that not only does the whole automobile shake but the handle spins round two, maybe three times. Tomás is about to comment on Sabio’s prowess but for the result attending this spinning of the handle: The automobile roars to life. It starts with a sputtering rumble from deep within its bowels, followed by a succession of piercing explosions. As it begins to judder and shudder, his uncle yells, “Come on, hop aboard. Let me show you what this remarkable invention can do!”
Tomás unwillingly but speedily clambers up to sit next to his uncle on the padded seat that stretches across the driving compartment. His uncle does a manoeuvre with his hands and feet, pulling this and pressing that. Tomás sees Sabio straddling a motorcycle that is standing next to a wall, then kick-starting it. He will be a good man to have along.
Then, with a jerk, the machine moves.
Quickly it gathers speed and swerves out of the courtyard, throwing itself over the threshold of the opened gates of the Lobo estate onto Rua do Pau de Bandeira, where it does a sharp right turn. Tomás slides across the smooth leather of the seat and slams into his uncle.
He cannot believe the bone-jarring, mind-unhinging quaking he is experiencing, directly related to the noise-making, because such trembling can come only from such noise. The machine will surely shake itself to pieces. He realizes he has misunderstood the point of the suspension springs his uncle mentioned. Clearly their purpose is not to protect the automobile from ruts, but ruts from the automobile.
Even more upsetting is the extremely fast and independent forward motion of the device. He sticks his head out the side and casts a look backwards, thinking—hoping—that he will see the Lobo household, every family member and employee, pushing the machine and laughing at the joke they are pulling on him. (Would that Dora were among those pushers!) But there are no pushers. It seems unreal to him that no animal should be pulling or pushing the device. It’s an effect without a cause, and therefore disturbingly unnatural.
Oh, the alpine summits of Lapa! The automobile—coughing, sputtering, rattling, clattering, jouncing, bouncing, chuffing, puffing, whining, roaring—dashes down to the end of Rua do Pau de Bandeira, the cobblestones underfoot making their presence known with a ceaseless, explosive rat-a-tat, then violently lurches leftwards and falls off the street as if from a cliff, such is the steepness of Rua do Prior. Tomás’s guts feel as if they are being squeezed into a funnel. The automobile reaches the bottom of the street with a flattening that sends him crashing to the floor of the driving compartment. The machine has barely stabilized itself—and he regained his seat, if not his composure—before it springs up the last upward part of Rua do Prior onto Rua da Santa Trindade, which in turn descends steeply. The automobile gaily starts to dance over the metallic jaws of Santa Trindade’s tram tracks, sending him sliding to and fro across the seat, alternately smashing into his uncle, who does not seem to notice, or practically falling out of the automobile at the other end of the seat. From balconies that fleet by, he sees people scowling down at them.
His uncle takes the right turn at Rua de São João da Mata with ferocious conviction. Down the street they race. Tomás is blinded by the sun; his uncle seems unaffected. The automobile pounces across Rua de Santos-o-Velho and bolts down the curve of Calçada Ribeiro Santos. Upon reaching the Largo de Santos, he looks wistfully—and briefly—at the walkers indulging in the slow activities of its pleasant park. His uncle drives around it until, with a savage left turn, he flings the automobile onto the wide Avenida Vinte e Quatro de Julho. Lapa’s lapping waters, the breathtaking Tagus, open up to the right in a burst of light, but Tomás does not have time to appreciate the sight as they hurtle through the urban density of Lisbon in a blur of wind and noise. They spin so fast around the busy roundabout of Praça do Duque da Terceira that the vehicle is projected, slingshot-like, down Rua do Arsenal. The hurly-burly of the Praça do Comércio is no impediment, merely an amusing challenge. Indistinctly Tomás sees the statue of the Marquis of Pombal standing in the middle of the square. Oh! If only the Marquis knew what horrors his streets were being subjected to, he might not have rebuilt them. On they go, onward and forward, in a roar of rush, in a smear of colour. Throughout, traffic of every kind—horses, carts, carriages, drays, trams, hordes of people and dogs—bumble around them blindly. Tomás expects a collision at any moment with an animal or a human, but his uncle saves them at the last second from every certain-death encounter with a sudden swerve or a harsh stoppage. A number of times Tomás feels the urge to scream, but his face is too stiff with fright. Instead, he presses his feet against the floorboards with all his might. If he thought his uncle would accept being treated like a life buoy, he would gladly hold on to him.