"We have religion because we’re mortal" - Yann Martel

The Skinny catches up with the Booker Prize winning Life of Pi author while touring his new novel The High Mountains of Portugal. He talks life and death, animals and religion – from that now famous maritime Tiger, to his new chimp star

Feature by Galen O'Hanlon | 24 Feb 2016

Yann Martel’s 2001 bestseller Life of Pi begins with a writer failing in his attempts at a book about Portugal, and writing about a boy and a tiger lost at sea instead. So is his latest, The High Mountains of Portugal, the book he couldn’t write before? "Yes it is," he tells us, on the line to The Skinny, ahead of a flight to Dublin – part of his promotional tour for the new novel. "But it goes back much further than that. In my early 20s I started working on a novel about an animal and a crucifix, but I didn’t know how to get it to come alive. So yes, it did begin a long time ago – but it only came together recently, it’s largely a creation of the last five years."

It’s a strange hybrid of a novel, in three parts. Following three men as they come to terms with grief and faith. Set in three distinct periods of time: 1904, 1939, and the 1980s. In the first part, recently bereaved Tomas drives one of the world's first motorcars into the High Mountains of Portugal in search of a lost artifact. In the second, we watch pathologist Dr Lozora converse, dream-like, with his dead wife, and perform an autopsy in which he finds an absurd array of objects hidden inside the man’s body. The third section sees a Canadian senator adopt a chimp and move to Tuizelo – the very town that Tomas went to, and from which the dead man came. The book finds continuity not in character but in theme, object and place. But what was it that brought the book to life, so many years after Martel had abandoned it?

It was, the Canadian author says, an understanding of what he was trying to do. "I was reading a lot of Agatha Christie novels. I’ve always been struck by the fact that she is so extraordinarily popular. She’s the most popular writer ever – no one has sold more books than her. I was trying to work out why she was popular, and it occurred to me that she does the same as many religions do – she makes death palatable. She does it by dint of being entertaining. She discusses death in a way that we’re comfortable with – because most death is deeply unsettling. It’s the great limit of our lives. But Agatha Christie novels have a moral framework, with meaning. Death is never meaningless in her books, there’s no accident."

You’ll find the full exploration of this theory in the central section of High Mountains, where Martel gives the idea to a pathologist’s wife, who turns up at the lab with a bottle of wine and a stack of Christie novels, and they have a long discussion on the parallels between the stories of Jesus and dear old Agatha. Poirot is the messiah, it seems. The section is frustrating in its clunkiness – and feels almost like it’s been jammed in there for authorial satisfaction rather than narrative success. Speaking to Martel goes some way to explaining this, though: he is preoccupied and passionate about religion, belief, murder mysteries, and how it all fits together.

If death is made palatable, where does grief come in? Well, all stories start with suffering, the author feels. It’s the same with religion: "It arises only in the context of suffering," says Martel. "We have religion because we’re mortals. Buddhism recognises that all life is suffering. In this novel, each part starts with suffering. It’s about how do they deal with it. It’s about the human ability to have faith – Tomas has very little, Dr Lozora has it but his faith is tested, and not necessarily rewarded. In part three the chimp is the faith object."

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Ah yes. That chimp. Life of Pi was full of animals, from the first scenes in the zoo to Pi’s survival in a lifeboat with a tiger onboard. And the third section of High Mountains displays Martel’s skills in bringing animals to life on the page – and it’s the best part of the book. But what is it about animals that so captures Martel’s imagination? 

"Oh, there are multiple reasons. On the surface, they make good narrative vehicles. Animals are imbued with a sense of wonder. We’re very cynical of our own species – but we find a sense of wonder in wild animals. Think of the popularity of things like National Geographic, safari holidays, and all the animals in children’s stories. We grow up with stories about animals – and then suddenly there’s a point at which we grow out of them. Sure, we don’t want stories so simple as children’s stories – but we lose a lot when we stop telling and reading stories about animals.

"That’s the shallow answer," admits the author. "... but there’s a deeper answer too. Think of the abundance of animals in religions everywhere. Hinduism is absolutely full of animals. Judaism and the Old Testament are packed with stories about animals, from Noah’s Ark to Jonah and the Whale. But then Christianity, alone among religions, gets rid of the animals – Jesus suspended them. And Western religion and philosophy grows further and further away from animals – only Darwin brings us back, which is why his ideas so horrified people at the time. So when I put the chimp on the cross in High Mountains, I want to point out that ambiguity – is it a reduction of human to animal, or an expansion to something bigger? And I wanted to point to the divine qualities in animals – the sense of presence, of being present. Animals have this wonderful quality of being right here right now – no dwelling on the past, no fixation on the future. That makes them closer to gods, in a way."

Is Martel as religious as all this makes him sound? "It’s odd. I grew up in a very secular household. But I’m fascinated by religion – how it asks so much of you, to believe, and it doesn’t rely on proof. Rationally, it makes no sense – and yet it exists, and people believe in it. It exposes us as non-rational beings, as people capable of faith. I’m religious in a broad sense, in that I believe in something that underpins our reality – but not in the strict terms of a Catholic or a Protestant."

Religion has certainly brought him enormous success – Life of Pi declares itself ‘a story to make you believe in God,’ and sold over ten million copies worldwide. It won the Booker Prize, was translated into more than 50 languages and was made into a film directed by Ang Lee in 2012. Has the success of that book affected his writing life? "Not at all. It’s changed my broader life, of course – I’m busier, wealthier, better known. But my writing life hasn’t changed. My strengths as a writer were perhaps magnified, but also my weaknesses. But it makes no difference in writing the books since. Each new one has its challenges, some of which I rise to, and some of which I flounder in. But I will always write books that some people hate and some people like."

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Did he enjoy the film? "Oh it’s a spectacular movie. And a lovely complement to the book. Words are extraordinary at delving into thoughts and emotions, but they’re no good at painting. The film brought out all the visual elements of the story in a way that the book could never do. Plus I got to go to LA for the Oscars," he says.

And finally, what’s his next project? "I don’t have one. Writing a book really takes it out of you – I feel emptied of words and stories. It’s not a painful process, but it’s exhausting. So for now I’m quite happy to forget about writing, go on tour and chat about this book. And I also have four kids under six years old, so that takes up a lot of time. I’ll spend time with them. They’re like four little Russian novels."

The High Mountains of Portugal is out now, published by Canongate, RRP £16.99