Questions and Answers with Yann Martel
Goodreads: One of the most intriguing things in The High Mountains of Portugal is the habit of Tomás, and later other characters, to walk backward following the deaths of loved ones. You write that for Tomás this is a personal objection—-to God—-and that later it becomes a tradition of the villagers of Tuizelo. Do you think grief is intensely private, or is there value in traditions that unite us in our grief?
Yann Martel: Grief is an appallingly solitary experience. What rips one person open may well be something that others merely glance at in a newspaper and feel nothing for. We shield ourselves against pain; we’re very adept at moving on when it comes to the pain of others—-it’s a natural defense mechanism—-until pain hits us in the middle of the chest like a well–thrown spear. Then you stagger and can’t imagine moving on. So yes, any tradition that helps lighten grief has value, although I suspect it’s never enough. There’s no trick that can make pain go away entirely. Time is a soother, of course, but time is also the great eroder. Time makes everything go away, pain and grief, but also life itself. I think what helps with grief is a belief -system that places it in a greater context, that invests it with meaning. Because that’s the killing part, when grief is meaningless. And so Tomás walks backward, a reaction as absurd as the grief he has to endure.
Goodreads: Are the High Mountains of Portugal your ideal setting because they are, by name, an exaggeration? “An act of national vanity”? The setting in your novel echoes some of the ideas about truth, storytelling, and expectation. Can you talk about the importance of names as they relate to our interpretation? How did you think about the names in the story as you were writing?
YM: The High Mountains of Portugal have no mountains, as various characters in the novel discover. And yet these characters have aspirations; they wish to climb mountains. And they do. Tomás wants to climb a mountain to conquer it, out of pride, hurt, mournful madness. Peter quite contentedly lives on a mountain, in a state of blessed detachment. Dr. Lozora has faith that there are mountains. The High Mountains in my novel are a place of heightened being; they are mountains in the mind.
Other names in the novel are also the result of careful mulling on my part, not that readers will necessarily see that. Peter Tovy because Peter was a disciple of Jesus, and Tovy is a Jewish Portuguese name, as is Lozora. Tomás because an earlier Thomas expressed doubts about Jesus. And so on.
Goodreads: How did the idea for The High Mountains of Portugal come to you? One of the things I love about it is how it makes many of the same points over generations, but in very different scenarios. Was the novel initially conceived as these three very different parts, or did it evolve into that? Can you talk about what ideas excited you as you became immersed in this work?
YM: I started writing a novel when I was at university. It featured a crucifix, a quest, an animal (a talking dog), a setting in Portugal. But I was too young, too unlearned in the craft of writing to know how to pull it off. The patient died on the operating table, so to speak. I moved on. Twenty–five years later, I started writing The High Mountains of Portugal, and something of that early novel showed itself, in an archaeological way. But new elements came into play, too. The automobile, the Agatha Christie murder mysteries, the autopsy, and so on. I don’t know if I’m any more learned in the craft of writing—-I still feel like an apprentice foolishly playing with powerful magic potions—-but this second time round the novel came together. What got me going was a casual observation I made one day: In most editions of the Gospels, there are chapter headings. Despite the accounts of the life of Jesus being quite short, despite some episodes of it being recounted in one sentence and most often in just one or two paragraphs, nonetheless there are all these chapter headings. It occurred to me that they provided a summary of the life of Jesus, and that life, whether one believes in Jesus or not, in many ways resembles the life of all of us: We are born, we grow up, we try our best, we die. I wondered to myself if I could write a novel using these chapter headings. What kind of life would my characters live if they existed in rough parallel to the events in Jesus’ life? Quickly the narrative broke into three distinct parts. I can’t remember when that happened exactly. It just did. Three—a symbolic number. And each part of the novel took on its own nature in an organic way. I did my usual research, on early automobiles, on the slave trade, on Agatha Christie, on chimpanzees, etc. This research gave me new ideas and new avenues of research. In the end, I eliminated the chapter headings, but the novel was there.
Interview questions attributed to Goodreads are from an interview between Heather Scott Partington and Yann Martel that appeared on Goodreads in February 2016 (goodreads.com/interviews/show/1100.Yann_Martel) and are reprinted here by permission of Goodreads.
Asymptote: Other than the obvious Christian allusion, was there anything that drew you to its triptych structure? What were you trying to do with it?
YM: Three worked well on many levels. Yes, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But also three states of belief: dis-belief, 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.
Asymptote: 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?
YM: 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.
Interview questions attributed to Asymptote are from an exclusive interview between Lee Yew Leong and Yann Martel from the January 2016 issue of Asymptote (asymptotejournal.com) and are reprinted here by permission of the interviewer and Asymptote.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. The High Mountains of Portugal, as we come to learn, do not contain high mountains. Why do you think Martel chose The High Mountains of Portugal as the title for his novel? In a novel that uses allegory, is there an allegorical meaning to the High Mountains? You might also discuss the way the setting works within each of the three parts of the novel.
2. At the end of Part One, finding the object he was looking for does not bring Tomás the satisfaction he was expecting. Why do you think that is? How do you understand Tomás’s words to Father Abraão, “Father, I need you!”?
3. When Peter Tovy’s son, Ben, sees the crucifix, he says, “This is crazy. What’s with all the apes?” What is with all the apes?
4. Martel titles the three parts of his novel “Homeless,” “Homeward,” and “Home.” Discuss the role that home plays in the novel and why he might have given the parts these titles. How is Tomás, in Part One, homeless? How do you understand “homeward” in Part Two? How is Peter Tovy, in Part Three, home?
5. In Part Two, Maria Lozora encourages her husband to read the novels of Agatha Christie to bring him closer to the Gospels. How convincing is her description of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries as being similar to the -Gospels?
6. Maria Lozora, commenting on Jesus’ use of parable, a literary device, asks “Why would Truth use the tools of fiction?” Why indeed?
7. Maria Castro asks Dr. Lozora to perform an autopsy on her husband, but she asks him to tell her not how he died but how he lived. Discuss the objects found in Rafael Castro’s body during the autopsy. What might they represent about how her husband lived? What do you make of the two animals found in Rafael’s chest? Imagine you were the body undergoing the autopsy. What objects might Dr. Lozora find in you?
8. Maria also says, “The heart has two choices: to shut down or to open up.” Discuss this statement in terms of how each of the characters in the other parts chooses to live.
9. Part One of the novel is a quest, Part Two mixes allegory with magical realism, and Part Three is contemporary realism. Which section of the book are you most drawn to and which works best for you?
10. The High Mountains of Portugal is a novel about loss, among other themes. Tomas has lost his young lover and their son; Maria Castro has lost her husband and son; Senator Peter Tovy has lost his wife. Discuss each char-acter’s response to loss. In presenting the three different -stories, what might Martel be trying to tell us about how to live with the loss of a loved one?
11. What other themes do you find in the novel—-for example, how important is faith and how important is love in each of the three parts? And which themes resonate for you personally most deeply?
12. As with Life of Pi, Martel has written a novel about how to live in the world, and about the stories we tell ourselves that enable us to do so. Discuss the stories the characters in each part tell themselves in order to cope with their loss. Do they succeed? Which character’s way of being in the world resonates most with you?