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The description of my family and life in the high mountains

An Interview with Yann Martel Lee Yew Leong Photograph by Emma Love Restless after the release in 1996 of his first novel, Self, which he likened to "the gangly, unathletic kid that no one wanted on their team," Yann Martel embarked for Bombay to begin work on a novel set in Portugal, funded by a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts.

When the book sputtered and stalled, Martel cast it away, shipping his notes "to a fictitious address in Siberia, with a return address, equally fictitious, in Bolivia. In India the erstwhile philosophy student, who was raised agnostic and spent his years at Trent University debunking proofs of God, chose "to believe that all this isn't just the result of happenstance and chemistry.

The High Mountains of Portugal, forthcoming in February, is a kaleidoscopic triptych that interweaves the stories of a tragic museum curator searching for a centuries lost crucifix, a pathologist whose wife waxes philosophical to him about biblical lore and Agatha Christie, and a Canadian Senator who forsakes politics to adopt a chimpanzee.

Faith, mortality, and place are the connective tissue by which these narratives cohere. Most of all, the triptych offers a sustained meditation on the meaning of home, rippled across the dimensions of love, language, the human body, and histories both individual and collective.

Without curdling his story, Martel packs into his prose a remarkable body of technical erudition—on subjects ranging from automotive engineering to pathology to zoology. The High Mountains of Portugal is his fourth novel.

Martel's books continue to garner critical acclaim and an international readership. Life of Pi, for which he is best known, has been translated into more than forty languages and adapted to the screen.

He is also the author of a series of letters recommending fictional works to former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, compiled and published as a collection in 2009.

In this email exchange with Asymptote editor-in-chief Lee Yew The description of my family and life in the high mountains, Martel touches upon the nature of story and artifice and the fragility of home in his new book, shares Canadian fiction recommendations, and details his relationship to his translators, including his parents. So I take the few ideas I have, the few ideas I think are worth my while to work on, and I spend a long time on them. You mention the key animals in Beatrice and Virgil.

Well, other elements of that novel were already in my head when I was in my early twenties. And the same with several parts of The High Mountains of Portugal. In fact, I started work on my latest novel when I was twenty years old. My roommates at that time would remember that I had little index cards taped to the walls of my room, the skeleton of the story.

I was too young as an artist, too young as a person. So I put it away, waiting—hoping—that one day I would be able to see my way to writing it. Other than the obvious Christian allusion, was there anything that drew you to its triptych structure? What were you trying to do with it? Three worked well on many levels. Yes, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But also three states of belief: Three states of home: But none of that I actually thought.

The story just broke into three parts naturally, organically, and I respected that and went along with it. What is the ideal relationship between artifice and story, for you? I think of the novel as requiring three seamless suspensions of disbelief. Fiction and artifice are one and the same, as far as I can tell. Any recounting, however realistic in tone and intent, must go through the matrix of representation, that is, a selection of what will be said and what not, and this from a subjective perspective that is factually unreliable because reality is constantly slipping away down the river of time.

In any other kind of writing, the artifice starts to show more. Whether it suits a particular reader is beside the point.

My favorite motif spanning all three sections is Appointment with Death, and the section that most impresses me is the middle one, in which you couch an extended essay arguing the similarities between the bible and the mystery genre.

The High Mountains of Portugal

This seems to hew close to what you actually went through: My editors were resistant, but only to a degree. Beatrice and Virgil, in its original, flip-book version, was way more out there. In The High Mountains, the essay is laid into the narrative in a more conventional way. Think of the long essay on war at the end of War and Peace. Novels peddle ideas, have, do, will. But they did urge me to trim it.

You have to come to see their point of view while staying true to yours. Did you have to make any compromises? How many drafts did the novel go through; how long did it take to write? I imagine you also took a trip to the High Mountains yourself as research for the novel. Could you tell us more about that?

I suppose there are some modern-day Jane Austens who write finished polished prose in which only a word or two is changed here and there. One of my editors, for example, is J. Another regularly works with Rushdie. Well, these kinds of readers call your every bluff, follow your every line of argument, weigh every word you write.

So these are not craven compromises.

  1. Will he still get home? Any recounting, however realistic in tone and intent, must go through the matrix of representation, that is, a selection of what will be said and what not, and this from a subjective perspective that is factually unreliable because reality is constantly slipping away down the river of time.
  2. Did you disagree over anything? Almost every weekend, we would venture into the mountains to do treks with my family, and so I spent a great deal of time in my childhood playing outdoors and appreciating nature in the mountains.
  3. You must be happy or at least happier with your new prime minister.

As for research, yes, I went to Lisbon and northern Portugal a few times, to soak in the atmosphere. But the rural Portugal I evoke is largely mythologized, so my research trips were starting points, not end points.

And I did other research, as I always do. My perspective as a writer is of looking out. The inward, psychological novel bores me. The world is fascinating, the inner ego fleeting and dull.

So I do research. How do you square this outward-looking novelistic lens with Life of Pi, which seems to me, if not a psychological project, then at least a spiritual or contemplative one? A psychological perspective is inherently self-aware, self-conscious—and therefore tending to look inwardly at least in part. Religion which I use in the broadest sense of the term seeks to extinguish the ego rather than reaffirm it. I happen to prefer the attempted blending of the ego into a great thing than the dwelling on the little aches and pains of what is essentially a tiny candle that is quickly blown out.

Home—and its corollary, identity—are no longer what they used to be. Home and identity are now in constant flux or rearrangement.

Home is now a construct, a compromise, a getting-by. We seek now who we are and where we belong, far more than we did in previous centuries. Could you speak at greater length about the function of dislocation and the fragility of home in The High Mountains of Portugal? Well, to put it baldly, you better find your way home before the lights go out. In Part One, Homeless, I look at a man who is unmoored and lost. He seeks, seeks, seeks, but blindly.

He is guided by hurt and resentment.

  • Tomas has discovered an ancient diary that sends him on a quest for a lost treasure in the mountains of the book's title, a geographically obscure realm that actually contains no mountains at all, but simply low, nondescript hills and bluffs;
  • Some people are born shriveled and no amount of enlightenment thrown at them will improve them;
  • I doubt Justin Trudeau reads any more than Stephen Harper does, at least any more literary stuff.

He seeks an object with which to hate. And when he finds it, he finds that he has found nothing, or nothing that brings him any comfort. He is still homeless. In Part Two, Homeward, I look at a man who is heading home, but gets waylaid by grief—the death of his wife.

Will he still get home? It depends on his attitude, his fortitude. In Part Three, Home, a man is in a right state of mind—that of letting go—and reaches home—despite being in a foreign land. Life of Pi was translated into forty-one languages. Much as the author Reif Larsen didI imagine you would have corresponded with many translators during their process of rendering the book into other languages.

Could you relate some illuminating situations, if any? What did you take out of this process?

  • Verb tenses, for example;
  • Thank goodness then that that go-nowhere plotline is abandoned entirely!
  • So Martel has found himself once again rehearsing his now highly polished opinions on such topics as the uses of allegory and why animals make such good characters.

Yes, I did correspond with a number of my translators, especially for Life of Pi. I was struck by a number of things. I thought that the problems that one translator might have, say, my Spanish one, would be roughly the same that another translator would have, certainly from another European language.


Well, not at all. Each translator seemed to trip on their very own special problems. And of course there were the questions that had to do with the peculiarity of each language, the degree of intimacy between characters, for example. You speak three languages, and your first language is French, not English.

Have you written creatively in French or Spanish, and if so, would you ever consider going back to it?

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I feel I control that language, that I can play it like an instrument, as I want to. French and Spanish I feel more self-conscious using, even French, which I speak and write fluently. So I write in French and Spanish strictly for practical or intimate purposes, e-mails to editors, letters to my family.

Many great writers also translate J. Would you consider translating one day? Why or why not? Translation is a fascinating exercise, one conundrum after another. You feel languages and civilizations rub against each other, like two cats meeting, when you translate.