Yann Martel’s High Mountains of Portugal and the ‘freak success’ of Life of Pi

Yann Martel lives a quiet life in a remote part of Canada most people couldn’t pinpoint on a map.

The famously restless author arrived in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan as the public library’s artist in residence in 2003, came to embrace the dry cold, the temperature extremes and the low-slung horizons, and stayed. He shares a plain wooden house in this corner of the Canadian prairie lands with Alice Kuipers, the British author he met in the same year, and they have four young children, ranging in age from six years to six months old.

At the rear of the home, Martel has a writer’s studio with central heating and a window view of the children playing outdoors, and it’s here the author comes to shut out the extraordinary, ”freak” success that is the ​Life of Pi, the book that changed his writing fortunes and his life.

The magic realist fable of a boy who survives 227 days adrift in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger won Martel the Man Booker Prize in 2002, and was made into an Oscar-winning film directed by Ang Lee, who accepted the award for best director in 2013 thanking Martel for his luminous words.

”It came out at the right time, it hit a nerve, people read it,” Martel says of Pi, which has sold more than 10 million copies. ”There is no way I’m going to get a success as big as that. That’s fine. Better a one-hit wonder than no hits at all.

”[But] at one point you have to shut the world out, and close the door. Don’t forget, success as a writer is very different from success as, say, a politician or an actor. As an actor you are your product; as a writer my product is a book and I’m something else. I’ve just moved on. I have difficulty remembering large chunks of Life of Pi now; I haven’t read it in 12 years.”

Martel has written two books since Life of Pi. Beatrice & Virgil was published five years ago, and tells the story of a bestselling author who is struggling to find a way to depict the Holocaust in an allegorical form. It took eight years and three full rewrites to bring it to publication and even then it didn’t cut it with some critics who took a dislike to this peculiar book featuring a talking stuffed monkey and donkey.

The second was a collection of letters and short book recommendations Martel sent Canada’s conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, twice a month for four years.

Harper’s ”education” was brought to a close in 2011 without Martel ever receiving a personal reply so the author could concentrate on his next novel.

That new book is The High Mountains of Portugal, a novel in three parts which returns to the grand literary themes of Life of Pi, of love and loss and the tussle between religion and reason, as told using Martel’s signature devices of religious allegory and zoological lore.

It begins with the story of Tomas, a young man in Lisbon in 1904 who discovers an old journal and heads off in mad pursuit of a strange religious treasure carved by an excommunicated priest, shifts to a Portuguese pathologist visited 30 years later by an old woman wanting him to perform an autopsy on her dead husband, whom she brings to him in a suitcase, and then jumps 50 years to a lonely Canadian senator who flees the memories of his dead wife to live with a chimp he has rescued from a cruel sanctuary.

Each interconnecting story looks at different aspects of faith. In Homeless, Tomas turns his back on God when his lover and son die as Martel sets out to show what it is to live in a state of “rupture and disenchantment” from faith. In Homeward Martel shows how it is fora believer to have their faith tested, and finally, inHome, the consequences of living with the object of one’s faith.

“I find faith,” says Martel, “a very odd phenomenon because we live in a very reasonable age. At the end of a life no one says I’ve been reasonable my whole life and therefore I’ve lived a good life. Obviously the quality of one’s life is defined by something else and as far as I can tell it is, one way or another, a form of faith, and faith is not reasonable; you can’t get to faith through reason.”

Martel, 52, was born in Spain, but grew up in Costa Rica, France, Mexico and Alaska, trailing his parents, both French-speaking members of the Canadian foreign service who lived through Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, a period of massive social, political and economic change coinciding with the dramatic reforms of Vatican II.

“Quebec went from being the most backwardly Catholic society to being the most socially democratic secular province in Canada,” Martel recalls. “I’m a grandchild of that revolution, so I grew up in a secular household, there was no religion whatsoever. Religion was something you saw in National Geographic.”

Studying philosophy at Trent University in Ontario was, says Martel, a “great way to make you an atheist or an agnostic depending on your level of anger”. But a trip to multi-faith India in 1997 triggered a period of personal exploration in which he says he looked into the eyes of gods and animals, and tried to understand each on its own terms. Returning to Canada, Martel volunteered in a palliative care ward, spending four or five hours every Thursday tending to the dying, this time overlapping with the writing of Life of Pi.

Far from making him depressed, the close-up experience of death clarified for him the tragedy of placing too much value on personal possessions and the importance of living in the moment.

Eventually he stopped looking for what he hated in religion – the sexism, the homophobia, the patriarchy – and realised there was a “great benefit to letting go, to stop trying to understand everything and trusting”.

Such an uncynical approach to belief is one of the reasons Martel believes Life of Pi resonates with readers.

“I think most people in public don’t want to sound like fools but in private we all have questions, wondering where we are going. No one likes ageing, everyone is afraid of death and I think in Life of Pi there was a forthright discussion of what reality is about. What do we want to believe here? Do we want to believe in more or do we want to believe in less, and what does that entail?”

The spark for The High Mountains of Portugal came from an idea Martel had of a crucifix carved in the image of a chimpanzee, the icon for which Tomas searches.

Wild animals serve as symbols for man’s quest for unfettered freedom in Martel’s writings, as metaphysical dream vehicles. In Pi the tiger teaches the shipwrecked survivor a lesson in co-existence, and their emotional bond saves Pi from despair. The chimp in The High Mountains invokes Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species the clash between theism and science, and carries a warning of species extinction.

Other elements of The High Mountains of Portugal date to Martel’s first attempt at a novel started in university. It was also set in Portugal, in 1939, about a group of lost pilgrims, and had a dog as a narrator. This is the failed book referred to by the author-narrator in the opening pages of Life of Pi, which is mailed to a fictitious address in Siberia before the author meets in Pondicherry an elderly man who boasts of knowing a story that ”will make you believe in God”. Unlike his fictitious narrator, Martel says he didn’t ditch that manuscript but mailed it to his real home address in Montreal, where he recovered it and fed some of his notes into The High Mountains.

What started Martel writing? ”A host of things,” he says. ”Books that I read as a child that showed me how powerful stories could be; a fear of the working world, to which I seemed to have nothing to offer and that seemed a cruel, forbidding place; the discovery that creating a story on the page was intensely satisfying; and the luck of having people who encouraged me early on, my parents, and small-journal publishers, then book publishers.”

​His breakthrough came while working in Paris as a security guard at the Canadian embassy, where his parents were staying. His first short story was published in The Malahat Review, one of Canada’s leading literary journals. It won the Journey Prize for Short Fiction and became the title story of  The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, his first published book. Martel regards the lean decade that followed as “glorious years”.

“I had enough money to live frugally, but really I lived like a king. Think of it: I woke every morning and the only thing I had to do that day was work on my first novel – Self – or later on, Life of Pi. What else could someone ask for? I was alive creatively and had no other worries in the world.”

And the decade since Pi?

Martel accepts Beatrice & Virgil was a relative failure compared to the extraordinary heights of Pi. He was doing something experimental with the representation of the Holocaust, a subject that has long fascinated him. He expects to be forever defined by Life of Pi, as William Golding is remembered for Lord of the Flies.

”That first decade was special because everything was new and exciting,” he says. ”Now my life is still exciting and creative, but also burdened by busyness and multiple demands. But overall I’ve had outrageous luck.”

The High Mountains of Portugal is published by Text at $29.99. 

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