Q & A: Yann Martel
Portugal was the first country I visited on my own, as a 20 year-old backpacker. I travelled from the south to the north. It made a deep impression on me, seeing a foreign country in solitude. That’s the personal connection. But the real reason I set my novel in Portugal is that curiously named region called Tras-os-montes, beyond or behind the mountains — but there are no mountains. Upon discovering this, I realized how geography is an act of storytelling, how in naming a region we are starting to weave a story about it, and in this case, it’s the story of a preoccupation with something beyond mountains that don’t even exist. Hence the mountains in my novel that also don’t exist. The High Mountains of Portugal are imaginary mountains, magic mountains, mountains in the mind.
The High Mountains of Portugal features three different stories across time – why did you choose to structure the novel in this way?
Because it grew that way, a palimpsest sort of novel, with earlier parts showing through in later parts.
The High Mountains of Portugual features a friendly chimpanzee as well as other animals – why are animals so important within your novels?
Because they share our planet. Because they are there with us in our central myths—Genesis, the Garden of Eden, Noah’s Ark, Darwin’s theory of evolution. Because, like gods, they are in need of explanation and exegesis. Because, like gods, they are bearers of ineffable mystery. Because we’re killing them all off. Because they are good storytellers, carriers not only of their own native identity but of all that we project onto them.
Walking backwards is a motif throughout the book (especially in ‘Part One: Homeless’). Characters seem to move this way out of protest and/or mourning. Is there any sense that writing is like walking backwards through the world? Is being a writer ever like being seen to be walking through the world backwards?
Absolutely. I believe there is a contrarian duty to writing. The writer must write In opposition to prevailing thinking and opinions. To object is sometimes to clarify, and that is the purpose of writing, to bring clarity. Also, in contemplating what is past, walking backwards also conveys the idea of respecting and preserving what is past, and that is another duty of the writer, to memorialize, to not forget.
The High Mountains of Portugal is structured around a conception of home. What about home appeals as a conceit?
Its centrality to our well-being, to our sense of belonging and identity. Homelessness, the literal kind, where we have no walls to hug us, is another expression of our mortality.
The recent Ang Lee film of Life of Pi was a huge global success, like the original novel. Was it strange sitting down to write this book having seen how your work can be adapted for a film? Did it affect how you wrote the novel?
Not at all. Movies and novels speak different languages, with different strengths and weaknesses. I do love movies, but I don't think in terms of screenplays. It's the artifice called The Novel that attracts me.
What is a typical day in the life of Yann Martel? Where do you write your novels?
My writing life is now regulated by my four children, ages 6, 4, 2 and 10 months. I write in between parenting them. That is to say, I live with four Russian novels whom I must write every day before I can get to work on my own novel.