Yann Martel finds Jesus – in the form of a chimp

The Life of Pi author is back with a novel that once again uses zoology and theology to explore the meaning of life

Yann Martel: “Religious figures have a strong sense of presence, of being right here, right now. You see that in animals.” Photograph: Dave Meehan

Yann Martel: “Religious figures have a strong sense of presence, of being right here, right now. You see that in animals.” Photograph: Dave Meehan


Even if you did not seek it out on foot of the Booker Prize or countless recommendations, The Life of Pi is one of those hugely influential books that has simply come to be on everyone’s bookshelf. The author, Yann Martel, has written a new novel, High Mountains of Portugal, in which he again marries the worlds of theology and zoology in a story he describes as “a broad allegory of the life of Jesus”.

It is early in the morning when we meet. He is just off a flight but he is gracious, pours me water and fusses with the heating in the cold room. Then we immediately wade in to huge serious questions about the world and his view of it.

Speaking with him is a little like reading one of his novels. Even as he is just sitting in a chair talking, he seems to hold a great energy within. He is abuzz with ideas, and eloquent with philosophies, which come at a dizzying speed.

In High Mountains of Portugal, Martel returns to questions of faith. “In The Life of Pi, I was curious about that phenomenon called faith. [High Mountains of Portugal] is, in a sense, a continuation of that, of what are the tools that we have at our disposal to deal with suffering. So I look at three different aspects of faith: having no faith; having faith but it is sorely tested; and then living with the faith object. The man actually lives with the chimpanzee, which is obviously the symbol for Christ.”

Immersed in grief

The three main characters of his new novel are men immersed in grief. “I find that religion starts with the idea of suffering. [In] Christianity the key event . . . is the crucifixion. Life is defined by death and it is what gives it its tragic tone. Same thing with art; art often starts with suffering, with a disquiet. The only way we think we can change and grow is through suffering. So what I was interested in is: you suffer and where do you go from there, what do the characters do?”

One character shows his objection to the pain in his life by turning his back to God by walking backwards. Another, a pathologist, learns about grief through performing an enlightening autopsy. The third character attempts to live in a “state of grace” but that too has its difficulties. “In each one I wanted to see how they react with the tools they have at hand.”

It is a “novel of choice”, divided into “three distinct commentaries on the theme. I wanted readers to, in a sense, have to choose which one they liked the most, which one they’d feel most comfortable living.”

If a book is a place where one goes to explore strange and foreign ideas, then in Martel’s work such ideas are the characters. He wants to write books that are left to a reader’s interpretation.

“I find people generally like to be involved. If it’s a television approach where I’ll supply images, colour . . . don’t worry, don’t think, just sit back: it is a nice relief from a harried workday. But that sort of kidnapping, where you have no work to do, also means you’re not involved. People like being active, which is why novels go so deep, because you have to read the bloody thing, you have to interpret it, you have to understand it, and we actually like that. People will be changed by stories.”

Scour away at wonder

Martel’s background is “completely secular”. His family “replaced religion with art, so you want to understand who you are, you read great novels, you look at great paintings, you listen to great music. Those are the tools we had to explore the human condition.”

But as a lens through which to see life, he began to find that unsatisfactory. “I got to my 30s and was travelling in India. I was a bit weary of just being reasonable. It’s very easy to be critical and reason is a very empowering critical tool, but it was affecting my life as an artist because its scours away at wonder. It will just explain it away. And being in India, which is such a ‘wonder-full’ country, for the first time I thought, why don’t I look at faith?”

The Life of Pi was “an examination of what it would mean to have faith”, which he sees as “an alternate reading of reality, one in which you choose to believe that there is more rather than less.”

Martel does not align himself with any church. “I’m religious not in a denominational, devotional way – I don’t particularly believe in dogma – but I do believe that all this reality is underpinned by something else. I’ve no proof for that. Dawkins and Hitchens would just laugh at that line.”

He sees religions he encounters as “truthful metaphors. They’re fictional ways to get at truth, so they do describe a reality. But they don’t get at that through reason, they get at that through our empathetic imagination. Exactly what novels do.”

Martel refers often to the Gospels, but in an academic way; how, even if they are just stories, they have changed the course of western civilisation. He is fascinated by the power of storytelling. “Religion is really interesting, whether you believe in it or not. It’s just fascinating what people do in trying to explore their reality.”

Martel has come to be known for his allegorical writing, his exploration of big questions using the wonder of wild animals. The reasons go from the banal to the sublime. “Writers of adult fiction rarely feature animals. So I kind of feel I’m in a field that isn’t crowded. Animals are wonderful storytelling vehicles. We tend to look at animals with a sense of marvel, so that partly opens you up as a reader, and then we project a lot on to animals, some negative stereotypes and some positive ones, and that’s useful as a writer.”

He also believes wild animals and religion go well together. “If you look at the way of being of religious figures – Jesus, Krishna, Buddha – they’ve a very strong sense of presence, of being right here, right now. You see that in animals too. They both carry ineffable mystery and we’re the reasonable dullards in the centre who are obsessive about the past, always roiling in it – Ireland’s a perfect example of that – and we’re always worried about the future, and it’s the present moment that slips by practically unnoticed.”

Martel’s allegorical work occupies a unique place in a literary fiction where realist writing is at the fore. What is he striving for with this style, which is often more akin to painting or poetry in the intuitive way it connects with the reader?

He prefers to use “art as a tool to explore. Not to try to portray how things are but how things might be, how they should be. There’s something transformational about art, about the empathetic imagination . . . like in the Life of Pi you have the choice of two stories: do you want to leave with nothing but brutal man’s inhumanity to man or do you want a richer reading?”

He finds allegory more stimulating. “When you read something that’s hyper realistic it gives you the aura of familiarity, which to me means it’s vaguely boring. I’d rather something that makes me think in new ways.”

Freak success

The success of The Life of Pi, says Martel, “has been completely irrelevant to my being as a writer. It’s made my life busier. Obviously I’m wealthier, but as a writer, inside me, it makes no difference. Just because I wrote one novel that was a great hit, it doesn’t mean that suddenly I can just write a novel with ease.”

Beatrice and Virgil, his Holocaust novel that followed Life of Pi, was “absolutely hated” by some. Martel was undeterred. “Everything I’ve written, from my first short stories to this novel, I’ve tried my best.”

To try to replicate the success of Pi would be “unrealistic. If The Life of Pi had been a considerable success, you know I could maybe aspire to that. But 13 million copies, that’s a freak success. It completely took me by surprise. You move on. It’s the book that’s successful. I’m just the writer. I live in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. I’ve to explain to people where that is [Canada]. I have four little kids. They’re completely unimpressed that I’ve written Life of Pi.”

“So do I want to reproduce Pi? I mean, would I say no to another Booker?”

Or the cash?

“Well, I don’t need the cash. I’ve got enough cash. But would I say no to another prize? Well, no. [The Booker] is a wonderful one. I love prizes for that because they validate you, but it’s also uncomfortable because it makes you feel like a racehorse. You’re in competition with the other horses and hope to win the race. That’s a horrible feeling because it’s not why you write.”

For Martel the true measure of success is in the dialogue with the reader. “What really is touching is when individual readers say, ‘I like this book. This moved me.’ It’s kind of like an act of consummation.”

  • High Mountains of Portugal is published by Canongate Books
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