Yann Martel has done a fair bit of traveling in his life, and that globetrotting is evident in the settings of his books, from Life of Pi’s Indian Ocean to the stories making up The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, which take place in Helsinki, Washington DC, and Malaysia.
Martel, born in Salamanca, Spain, educated at Trent University in Peterborough, and now living in Saskatoon, calls his latest novel The High Mountains of Portugal, which immediately raises two questions: Why Portugal? And does Portugal have any high mountains?
“Portugal was the first country I traveled as a 20-year-old backpacker and it stayed with me,” he says. “But the mountains, the hills are quite modest and I realized that topography is a matter of storytelling.
“It’s in the Northeast, bordering Spain,” he adds, referring to the novel’s main setting. “The landscape is largely imaginary, but the villages are real. They’re in a large national park.”
The new book is divided in three parts, set in three different time periods, In 1904, a young man named Tomás sets off on a quest to recover a surprising work of religious art that takes him through a series of small villages in that new-fangled invention, an automobile. Just before the Second World War, a pathologist witnesses a mystery more complex than his beloved Agatha Christie detective stories. Finally, a Canadian politician retires to his ancestral village with a most unusual companion, a chimpanzee. The novel moves from tragedy to humour to spiritual questioning, but always remains grounded in a real-seeming landscape.
Tomás and his vehicule are the source of some genuinely funny episodes, which overlie a heartbreaking story, but that makes up only part of the surprises in store for the reader. Two other characters have an intriguing conversation about connection between the Gospels and Agatha Christie. Turns out, Martel is very serious in his admiration of the bestselling mystery writer.
“When she’s at her best, she’s brilliant,” he says. “And if you pay attention, you can figure out the mystery. She’s so ingenious in her process of revelation. She’s very funny, and devilishly clever.
“She’s the world’s most popular writer to this day,” he adds. “That’s surprising. She’s not universal, she’s rooted in her Englishness, but she makes death palatable.
“Life only makes sense when you’re aware of death. But real death is repellant, so we don’t dwell on it. But with Agatha Christie, because she’s so entertaining, we feel as if we’re brushing with death.”
From his admiration for Christie, Martel pivots to a very different text, the Gospels. Prior to the Christ story, gods were more or less immortal. The Christ story, as Martel points out, is different.
“[The Gospels are] basically a lens on what it means to be human,” he says. “They’re not great as literature. They’re not nearly as gripping as the Bhavagad Gita, for example, or the Epic of Gilgamesh. They’re far less coherent as stories, considering their influence.
“But, Jesus made death palatable, by resurrecting, for the first time. Hence he becomes the most popular story in the Western world.”
The High Mountains of Portugal is the third Martel novel where animals play an important role in the narrative. In Life of Pi and Beatrice & Virgil, though, the animals are anthropomorphized, and their humanized qualities give their novels a fable-like quality, something the new novel shares at times. But Odo, the chimpanzee in the new work, is portrayed very much as an animal, and the retired politico who journeys with him spends his time learning about Odo’s animal nature.
Martel admits that he risks between typecast as “that novelist who’s always writing about animals” but, he points out, they’re not much used as subject matter these days, outside children’s literature and religious literature. Nonetheless, Martel notes that it’s odd that various religions invoke animals.
“It’s funny,” he says, “I think it has to do with wonder. We look at animals with multiple lenses, and with a sense of wonder.
“But that doesn’t make sense in religions because animals don’t matter to religions,” he adds. “They don’t have souls. But there’s something calming and centering about being with animals, and with what we consider a divinity.
“So few modern writers use animals,” he sums up. “Franz Kafka is full of them, Faulkner and Hemingway used animals, too. I use animals because no-one else does. I don’t have competition.”