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." What followed was an odyssey across the south of India, an exploration of sacred spiritual sites and foundational scripture that informed his masterpiece, Life of Pi, for which he received the Man Booker Prize in 2002. 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."

Two decades later, that novel set in Portugal, conceived by Martel in his early twenties and initially abandoned in Matheran, has reached fruition. 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. Martel's novel cuts across space and time in Portugal's high mountains with a panoramic edge that recalls Colum McCann's sweeping treatment of New York City in Let the Great World Spin. 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. His most recent novel, Beatrice and Virgil, was a New York Times best seller. 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 Leong, 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. 
—Henry Ace Knight

I was astonished to stumble upon an interview from 2003, two years after Life of Pi, in which you said your next novel would be about a monkey and a donkey, and the novel after that would “feature three chimpanzees.” The monkey-and-donkey novel turned out to be Beatrice and Virgil (2010), and The High Mountains of Portugal, your new novel coming out next month (which I found to be a brilliant triptych “weaving together . . . space and time,” to use your own description), features three chimpanzees. That makes it at least thirteen years between the novel’s conception and its publication. How could you be so sure that (a) you wouldn’t be beckoned away (by other ideas for novels), and (b) you could pull them off, artistically, and deliver both to your readers?


I’m not one of those writers who’s like a tourist constantly clicking away with his camera. Writing is hard, especially when you’re trying to pull off that difficult artifice called The Novel. 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. But I didn’t know how to pull the novel off then. 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: disbelief, belief, actual presence with. Three states of home: homelessness, homeward, 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.

A. S. Byatt’s The Matisse Stories is housed in a similar triptych structure and presents three separate stories, written with overlapping motifs (as well as mise en abymes). Your sections not only contain overlapping motifs, they’re also meant to occur within a single story, making it quite difficult for the reader to suspend disbelief. Given that The High Mountains of Portugal is a much less “meta” project than Beatrice and Virgil, were you ever concerned about The High Mountains drawing too much attention to its own artifice? 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. So the ideal relationship, I suppose, is one where there seems to be no artifice at all, where the readers think that they “see” and “feel” the story as if it were a true, empirical reality. But that’s the ideal relationship only from the perspective of the historical realism school of fiction. In any other kind of writing, the artifice starts to show more. Think of poetry, or opera, where the artifice is evident at every moment—and that’s all right. There’s a pleasure (and a utility) in being aware of the framework. Whether it suits a particular reader is beside the point. If the writer’s intent doesn’t meet a reader’s expectation, it is up to the reader to change his or her expectation, or find another book.

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. I was reminded of Henry from Beatrice and Virgil, who wants to publish a novel and an essay together in one flip book but his publishers are so put off by the idea that they suggest it would turn out to be a “flop book” instead. This seems to hew close to what you actually went through: you “spent at least two years” writing an essay that your publishers turned down in the end. Here, in The High Mountains of Portugal, you’ve found a way to integrate an essay into the story itself, as it were, and the novel is richer and more profound for it. But I’m curious if your publishers were resistant to the tactic.

My editors were resistant, but only to a degree. Beatrice and Virgil, in its original, flip-book version, was way more out there. No literary novel/essay has ever been done like that, or not by a major publishing house. 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. Which I did. That’s the tricky balance you have to establish with your editors, if they are good, which mine are. 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? 

Compromises? Hundreds. Drafts? Dozens. 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. I ain’t one of those writers. I’m a messy, untutored blunderer. I might have been left to my ways if it hadn’t been for the bizarre success of Life of Pi, which—among many other consequences—brought me to the attention of many fine, sharp-minded editors. One of my editors, for example, is J. M. Coetzee’s editor. 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. They’re escapes from indulgences, narrow misses with non sequiturs, rescues from repetition, and so on.

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 if I’m going to look out, I also need to know, because you can’t understand what is out there if you don’t study it. So I do research. It’s an integral part of my writing process.

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?

You’ve answered the question. A psychological perspective is inherently self-aware, self-conscious—and therefore tending to look inwardly at least in part. A “spiritual/contemplative” one, to use your term, has a reverse gaze—outward—and, more to the point, is characterized by an opposite aim: to quell the ego. Religion (which I use in the broadest sense of the term) seeks to extinguish the ego rather than reaffirm it. I’m not saying one approach is better than the other. 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.

The High Mountains of Portugal is oriented around the central theme of ‘home’ – you’ve titled its sections ‘Homeless,’ ‘Homeward,’ and ‘Home’. Have you read Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home, and if so did it affect the writing of your own novel? I know you’ve read Robinson’s Gilead, which you recommended to Stephen Harper as Book #48.

No, I haven’t read Robinson’s Home. But home and the loss of it, dislocation, is a common 20th- and now 21st-century theme, I’d say. 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. “Home,” in the context of THMOP, is a sense of acceptance with one’s mortal lot. 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. 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.

Not speaking the same language as your interlocutor seems to be another recurring theme in The High Mountains of Portugal, and I found myself thinking of what you said about all of us being “citizens of languages.” But with translation bridging readers with writers from other languages, a writer might be an “honorary citizen” in a foreign country and a reader a tourist, if you will. Life of Pi was translated into forty-one languages. Much as the author Reif Larsen did, I 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?

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. Also, I found that the translator’s personal bank of life knowledge helped or hindered the task of translating the novel. For example, I remember that my Chinese translator clearly didn’t have the least knowledge or familiarity with sailing matters. I spent pages trying to make clear to her what a “sea anchor” was. 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. Would they say “vous,” “usted,” “Sie,” or “tu,” “tù,” “du”?

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? If not, why?

I’m comfortable writing only in English. 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. And once you’re self-conscious, you lack that linguistic forgetfulness that allows you to tell your story freely, as if existed purely, beyond language. 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. M. Coetzee, Haruki Murakami). 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. It makes for delightful linguistic play. I’ve done it on occasion with my parents, who are translators from Spanish and English into French (in fact, they did the French translation of Life of Pi). It’s a kind of fleshed-out Scrabble game. But the problem I have with it is that, being a writer myself, I start to fall to the temptation of not simply translating but wanting to rewrite.

I’m deeply thankful for translators. Great continents of my literary knowledge would not exist were it not for literary translators. Some of my favourite writers growing up—Tolstoy, Dante, Mishima, Hamsun—would have been inaccessible to me were it not for the bridge-building of translation.

What was it like having your parents undertake the French translation of Life of Pi ? Did you disagree over anything?

We disagreed on plenty of things. Verb tenses, for example. The passé composé or the passé simple? This expression, or that expression? A translator, in a routine way, has to make a thousand choices. So sometimes we made different choices and had to come to an agreement. It was always fun, and never a source of tension.

You must be happy or at least happier with your new prime minister. Any books you would recommend to Justin Trudeau (from what you’ve read since your “Recommended Reading to Stephen Harper” came out)?

I doubt Justin Trudeau reads any more than Stephen Harper does, at least any more literary stuff. But he has a more open mind to start with, less stunted than Harper’s. Some people are born shriveled and no amount of enlightenment thrown at them will improve them. There’s a saying from the Bible, Do not give what is holy to dogs, do not throw pearls before swine. I suspect Trudeau, because of his upbringing and because of his natural inclination, is more open, both of mind and of heart. Reading would make him refine his thinking and feeling—but he’s already miles ahead of Harper.

Our “Writers on Writers” section is at the core of Asymptote’s raison d’être; we see it as our mission to introduce lesser-known but just as deserving writers from around the world to our global readers. Apart from a few Canadian writers who’ve achieved renown in America and beyond (most of them female for some reason: Mavis Gallant, Anne Carson, Alice Munro), I can’t think of many Canadian fiction writers off the top of my head—and I’m sure this is my fault. In the same spirit as your “Recommended Reading” or our own WoW section, can you let us know which Canadian writers, both male and female, and especially up and coming ones, you think we should be reading, and which of their books in particular strike you as especially worthy?

Odd, that, isn’t it, the domination of women writers. I don’t think it has anything to do with our drinking water. Just happenstance. And there are many male fiction writers who are “up there” too. Michael Ondaatje, Guy Vanderhaeghe, etc. One Canadian writer whose dystopian novel struck a truly chilling note for me was Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. Jospeh Boyden is also very, very good, as are Miriam Toews, Ruth Ozeki, Heather O’Neill, Larry Hill, Anakana Schofield, etc. A lot of women, once more. Perhaps it is our drinking water.

And finally, because the last time you were asked you predicted accurately 13 years into the future, I should ask: What book projects do you have in the pipeline?

None. After every novel, I’m totally emptied of words and incapable of even thinking of writing another novel. Then time brings ideas and starts building a head of creative steam in me. So right now, I’ve got nothing in me. I’m happy to do a few things to help my next novel, a tour, some interviews, and the like. Otherwise, I look forward to doing nothing, that is, to reading, exercising, spending time with my family.