After his first collection of short stories and a novel were commercial failures, Yann Martel surprised the world with Life of Pi, the best-selling phenomenon that won him the Man Booker Prize in 2002. He then took a break from fiction for almost a decade, focussing on a letter-writing campaign to then Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, during which Martel sent Harper a book every fortnight along with an explanation of why the PM should read it. In 2010 Martel published his third novel, the much-anticipated Beatrice and Virgil, which divided critics and audiences with its allegorical take on the Holocaust.
Now, with The High Mountains of Portugal, Martel revisits familiar themes like faith and grief, traveling surprising territory. If Martel has made a career out of anything, it is upsetting expectations, and this is an unexpected book, comprising three separate stories that span the 20th century and cover everything from the dawn of the motor vehicle to theosophical musings on Jesus and Agatha Christie, connected by the unlikely device of chimpanzee biology.
The Millions caught up with Martel in Waterstone’s bookstore in Manchester, England, during the U.K. leg of his book tour for a conversation as wide-ranging as his novels, covering Jesus, animal husbandry, and J.M. Coetzee’s one bad novel.
TM: This book has had quite a long gestation period. It was the book you were trying to write when you went to India, where you ending up writing Life of Pi. This book is kind of about family and homecoming — do you think you were too young to write the book at that time, that you had to become a father in order to write it?
YM: Hmm…I hadn’t thought of that actually. Not that I’m aware of. Because I also started working on a novel that’s set in Portugal in my early-20s when I was at university. And there I couldn’t do it just because I was too immature. I didn’t know how to tell a story. I just had ideas, I had these little cards all over the wall full of ideas. And at that time the story had a talking dog. I had other characters too, but it just wasn’t working. I couldn’t actually start writing paragraph after paragraph telling a story with these little notes on the wall. And then the same thing happened in India. I had all kinds of elements. I had characters. I had a senator, as I do in the book now, but in that version he was addicted to electricity exactly like you would be to a drug. So there were elements, but it didn’t come together. It’s only after my last novel, Beatrice and Virgil, that it somehow all came together. But I hadn’t thought of fatherhood…That might be, but I’m not sure. I just finally came of age that I could write the book.
TM: But it sounds like it’s a completely different book than it would have been.
YM: Yeah, well…Animals, crucifixes, Portugal, you know, those sort of remain. But you’re right, the Agatha Christie stuff is completely new, the pathology stuff too.
TM: In this version, the predominant animal in the book is the chimpanzee.
YM: Yes, there’s a chimpanzee each in each of the three parts, but in a different form. In the first it’s, to use that old academic term, reified. In the second part it’s sort of an imaginary chimpanzee in someone’s body. And then in the last part there’s a real one. My idea was: what are the three kinds of relationships we have with faith?
TM: When I think of a chimpanzee I think about Charles Darwin, evolution, the Scopes Monkey Trial – science, basically. Whereas, you’re subverting that and using the chimpanzee as a religious image.
YM: Yes, I chose the chimpanzee precisely because of its Darwinian associations. I definitely used it in that context: that chimps are incredibly close to us, but not. You know, we share 97 percent of our genetic material. I wanted something that would be uncomfortably close, so close enough that we can see a kinship, but far enough that if you put it on a crucifix you’d be outraged. You’d see that there’s a traditional disconnect between putting a chimpanzee on a cross. So I wanted something that would hark to that 19th-century discovery that suddenly brought animals close to us. Because it’s interesting if you look at the history of Christianity, as opposed to other religions, other religions have a lot of animals in them. Christianity is typified by a complete absence of animals. Well, look at the Old Testament — it’s full of animals. The New Testament there’s far less of them. Literally far fewer mentioned. They are purely symbolic — the lamb of God, the fish as a symbol for Jesus. That has nothing to do with fish or lambs. They’re purely symbolic.
And then Darwin comes in brilliantly and suddenly says “You know these things that you’ve completely forgotten, that you thought were automatons with no souls, no feelings? Actually they’re a lot closer to us, they’re cousins.” And he brings them really right close up to us and I wanted one of the ones that was brought closest to us, which was the greater apes. So you’re right, it’s exactly because of that play with Darwin.
But it was also interesting to me, if you had a chimpanzee on a cross, as they ask themselves in the novel, does that reduce Jesus? Or does it elevate creation? To me it’s ambiguous, one of those ambiguities I wanted to let rest with the reader. Or, since Jesus is supposed to be God made human, that means a chimpanzee is 97 percent human-like, and therefore 97 percent Jesus-like. So there’s a divine echo. And, as I’ve said in a few interviews now, I find that fits also because if you read about religious figures, or any number of wise people, they have a sense of presence. There’s a very strong sense in religious figures that they are right here, right now, really imbued in the present moment. So when Jesus talks to a leper he’s fully addressing that leper, his full divinity is there and the leper is completely stunned. That extraordinary sense of presence is a very animal-like quality. Animals have a very strong sense of presence. Your dog, your cat, when it looks at you, all it’s thinking about is the present moment. They are trapped, in a sense, in the present. They have memory, of course, but it’s a kind of memory that is only triggered for purposes of usefulness. So, you come into the room it remembers you, therefore it interacts with you. But it’s only looked at in the present moment. And animals have no capacity to entertain the future. So, in a funny way, Jesus has a very animal-like quality, and animals have a very Jesus-like quality. And the ones who are in between those two extremes are us, who have such a difficult time being in the present. We are constantly worried about the past, and dealing with our past, in a very self-aware way, in a very unconscious way too. And we’re always worried about the future. We’re worried about climate change, and then we’re worried about what our mothers did to us when we were young. And it’s a present moment that seems the one that slips by unnoticed, even though it’s the only one that actually exists.
How’s that for a long-winded answer? I can’t even remember what your question was.
TM: [Laughs.] No, it’s great! I was going to say it reminded me of something Richard Dawkins often says when he’s asked about the relationship between humans and animals. He brings up this image of all of the missing links between humans and chimpanzees, standing in evolutionary order: each would be able to mate with the one next to it on either side and produce offspring, so at what point along the line do you mark the cut-off between human and animal? And you’re kind of extending that: chimpanzee, to human, to God.
YM: Absolutely, to divine figures. To me, it’s funny, it’s clearly more than just a quantitative break with the great apes; it is qualitative. The fact that we share 97-point-something of our genetic material is remarkable. But, that two-point-whatever-it-is difference is like the difference between butterscotch pudding and chocolate pudding. They’re mostly similar, but the key ingredient makes all the difference between chocolateness and butterscotchness.
That’s why I always find animals are carriers of an ineffable mystery. If you look in the eyes of a gorilla or of a chimpanzee, it is vaguely troubling because you do get a sense that there’s some sort of contemplation taking place there. There’s some sort of rudimentary brain thinking, emoting…Emoting in a way that’s more self-reflective, than your average animals emoting. You know, there’s a sense in the higher apes that there’s a kind of proto-thinking. And I just find that like…Wow! Why do we have so much intelligence? We have such aggressive intelligence, and it’s not doing us any good. We’re destroying our planet; we’re throwing things completely off-balance. Whereas the gorilla lives in stasis with nature in a state of balance. So they have just enough intelligence. Like all animals, they’re just intelligent enough to survive. We clearly have an excess of it. And so, you’re right, you wonder at what point there was that jump and why.
TM: At one moment in the book, you describe an animal research lab as a kind of “Auschwitz” for chimpanzees, and in your last novel Beatrice and Virgil you touch on similar themes: one of the characters is writing an allegorical play about the Holocaust using animals, and it’s said that he’s doing this to “speak of the extermination of animal life.” So what are your thoughts on the way that humans treat animals in the present day? Do you think it’s something that future generations will look back on with amazement and disgust?
YM: It’s funny, that’s a question I would only get in England. It’s a wonderful question. I think our treatment of animals is deeply, deeply schizophrenic. So, on the one hand — and it’s even more schizophrenic in North America — you have people who will spend thousands and thousands of pounds on vet bills for their little puppy, and at the same time there’s industrial, mechanized slaughter of animals on a daily basis to feed our excessive fondness for meat. So, even in England, where animal husbandry is probably the best in the world, nonetheless the fact is they’re still brought in and slaughtered. So I think it’s schizophrenic. My problem with meat — I used to be a vegetarian, now I eat meat again — is really the not taking of responsibility. So I don’t mind someone going out there blasting away at a deer with a rifle, because you have to get up early in the morning, try to get your deer, shoot at it, get it right, kill it, drag it to some place — you’ve earned your meat then. What I object to is the idea of going to a supermarket and just taking this meat that you have no idea where it came from. For a couple of pounds or dollars you get the remnants of a sentient being. So that I find disturbing and I find it desensitizes us to sentient beings. So, in a sense, you mistreat animals, you eventually will mistreat human beings. If you’re casual to animal life you will eventually be casual to human life.
We overvalue a tiny number of species and disregard the ones that we eat, and disregard the ones that are wild. And I think, in some ways, it is un-Christian, which is why I like the idea of the chimpanzee — I think it elevates creation.
TM: You’ve mentioned a number of times that J.M. Coetzee is your favorite living writer. Obviously he’s known for talking a lot about animals in his books as well, and you both use allegory quite a lot. Would you say that he was a particular influence on this book? I noticed in The High Mountains of Portugal that the narrative is all in the present tense, which is a stylistic device that he uses.
YM: Definitely the present tense. In fact, the first draft was in the past tense and I found it didn’t work. And Coetzee doesn’t use it all the time, but he uses it incredibly effectively. Because, as I said, you remember I was talking about the sense of presence? Well, the sense of presence is best expressed in the present tense. I did get it through him.
I find he’s…a funny guy…I’ve never met him, but he’s a weird man, J. M. Coetzee. He is preoccupied with the way we treat animals. But my preoccupations are somewhat more conventionally human than his. You know, even Peter Singer will say the worth of an animal is to some extent based on its ability to enjoy life, it’s appreciation of what life might mean. So hence, a slug is worth less than a human being, because a slug, because of the make-up of its very small brain, makes less of life. Whereas I think Coetzee’s gotten to stage now where, you know — man and animal, eh it’s all the same! There’s a certain slight nihilism I feel, maybe? Which I don’t share — push comes to shove, I’ll chose a human over any animal.
I’m mainly influenced by his style, he’s just an extraordinary…He does so much with so little. In a sense, his sentences are quite simple. He doesn’t use great vocabulary. You know, but he just…His artistry is astonishing. But it’s interesting too, he’s also very hit and miss. So, I don’t know if you read his last one The Childhood of Jesus?
TM: Are you going to say you didn’t like it?
YM: Well, it’s terrible! Did you like it?
TM: [Laughs.] Yeah, I did.
YM: I found it was abysmal, I thought it was a parody of himself. You had these longshoremen having these discussions. I thought this is laughable! So either I completely misunderstood it, I had no idea what it was about…Also I did make the mistake of reading it on my e-reader, so I was reading it and it suddenly ended, because I couldn’t tell where I was, and I said “Oh, there’s got to be a mistake here, maybe I didn’t download it properly…” And I thought none of it worked. Once again, scene by scene he’s brilliant, but, you know, none of it worked for me, and it’s the only one that’s been that bad.
TM: Do you know what you’re going to be doing next?
YM: No. I work on one book at a time, takes me a long time. This is sort of the last idea I’ve had for a long time. Before Beatrice and Virgil turned into a novel it was going to be a flip book with a novel and an essay. I did write the essay, and it’s about representations of the Holocaust. That discussion still strikes me as interesting, since people still don’t want to visit the Holocaust in any other way but the conventional social, realistic way. It’s funny, I did this radio show and I mentioned this and immediately this guy said “Ah, but there’s the movie Life is Beautiful.” I said “Yeah, can you name any others?” There’s Mel Brooks’s The Producers…
TM: And the film that Jerry Lewis tried to make.
YM: Exactly, there’s that other one, that was never finished. So there’s those two movies, and with Mel Brooks that’s a story within a story. And Life is Beautiful is pretty well the only movie that takes metaphorical lightness towards the Holocaust. But in literature, yeah, Martin Amis, The Zone of Interest just recently, and Time’s Arrow… Anyway, so I may revisit that essay. My publishers are going to say “Oh fuck, the Holocaust again…This is not going to sell.” So I may just put it out with some small publisher just to have it out there. But in terms of another novel I have no ideas — literally, zero. I have four kids, so they’re like four little Russian novels running around me. I’m going to spend time with them and then I have no idea what I’m going to do next…Nobody knows. I’ll see. When I get more sleep from having four children I might, um…
TM: Perhaps a children’s book?
YM: I thought of that, but my partner writes children’s books. I figure she knows better and I don’t really want to go in her territory. More likely I’ll write something that’s adult-like, but infused by the fact that I have children. There’s so many good children’s books out there anyway, so many people who write so amazingly well for children that I don’t want to. I’m not going to do it like Richard Adams, just sort of pass the time, tell a story to his children, and he’ll write this amazing book, you know, Watership Down. I don’t think I’ll…Well maybe I will feel the inclination to do that in a few years, but not so far. Who knows?