The Life of Meaning: On Yann Martel’s ‘The High Mountains of Portugal’

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Over the holidays, I returned home to have a long conversation with my brother, a lawyer, about religion. In recent years he’s been exploring Judaism, drawn to its strong traditions of law and scholarship. I should mention we are not Jewish. We were raised Catholic. But his wife is Jewish and they are raising their children in that faith, so it makes sense that he would educate himself. I argued in favor of a worldview rooted in observable reality and devoid of mysticism, faith, and spirituality. I painted religion as a too-convenient crutch for existential questions and too fuzzy — or worse, too unbending — on practical concerns. He offered a rebuttal. And so it went. As is often the case with brothers, in the end we resolved little while exercising ourselves greatly.

Religiosity is an interesting development in my brother’s life. Growing up, he was a rather strident critic of organized religion, going so far as refusing to be confirmed, which at our Catholic school resulted in something of a minor scandal. While I, too, had my reservations about the church, I managed to retain some semblance of faith well into adulthood. The irony, of course, is that around the time I was reevaluating my beliefs he was discovering his. Perhaps it’s this complementary trajectory that has led both of us to appreciate the work of Yann Martel. The Canadian author has made a rather successful career for himself out of just this type of sacred/profane wrangling. He once said that his most famous novel, Life of Pi, could be summarized in three sentences: “1) Life is a story. 2) You can choose your story. 3) A story with God is the better story.” If the last of these is true, then surely my brother is living the better story. But I have my doubts. A spiritual practice seems if not archaic then, at the very least, less urgent in the contemporary world than it once did when religion offered the only answers to inexplicable phenomenon. Granted, restricting religion to the role of oracle is a crude abbreviation of its scope; religion has evolved over thousands of years into a sophisticated system of meaning-making and emotional support. Even so, religion’s role in the data-driven 21st century seems to be less about objectivity and more about its usefulness as a path to personal enlightenment. In his new novel, The High Mountains of Portugal, Martel makes a bid for understanding religion’s enduring role in contemporary life as one that favors a practical approach of meaning-making and change-effecting.

On its surface, High Mountains is obsessed with religiosity. Its three long, largely independent chapters each confront deep questions of faith and religion’s (at times tautological) cultural legacy. The book opens with Tomás, a young man from Lisbon who has, in quick succession, lost his lover, his son, and his father, a composite blow that manifests in Tomás’s peculiar ambulation: he walks backwards as a rebuke to God. To settle the score with God, Tomás seeks out a 17th-century crucifix thought to be somewhere in Portugal’s remote northeastern corner. This crucifix is supposed to depict Christ as a chimpanzee and Tomás believes it would cause a scandal if made public. “With this object,” he says, “I’ll give God His comeuppance.” The novel then jumps forward in time to New Year’s Eve 1938 where Dr. Eusebio Lozaro’s late wife, Maria, drops by her husband’s office to explain the similarities between the work of Agatha Christie and the Gospels. The novel’s final chapter finds Peter Tovey, a Canadian Member of Parliament, buying an ape named Odo and returning to the town of his birth for a resolution that crystallizes the novel’s disparate storylines on a church altar.

A surface reading indicates that High Mountains advocates an unorthodox but still firmly traditional Christian worldview, yet Martel’s work has long resisted religious purity. Pi Patel, the protagonist of Life of Pi, drew from three faiths — Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam — as needed without agonizing over any contradictions in dogma. Here, Maria Lozaro, who we’re told is a devout woman, similarly finds nothing blasphemous in drawing parallels between the deductive fictions of Agatha Christie and the divine imperative ascribed to the Christ story. Even if he’s wary of picking sides, does this mean that Martel insists on some kind of religious worldview? I don’t believe so. I think what Martel’s books have long understood is that religion is best employed not as an end in and of itself, but rather as a methodology that imparts meaning to observable reality. We see that with Pi who turns to three faiths for the strength to survive a hellish odyssey and we see it with Dr. Lozaro who uses literary analysis of scripture to cope with his wife’s passing. Similarly, without God to lash out against, Tomás’s grief would have no outlet.

Martel further makes the case for the practical application of religious belief by endorsing the ineffably literary merits of faith. Speaking of Jesus’s preference for parables, Maria asks her husband, “Why would Truth use the tools of fiction?” It’s an interesting question that harkens back to Martel’s claim that “[a] story with God is the better story.” Maria is first and foremost concerned with fiction’s pedagogical implications. Remember, Maria has journeyed back from the underworld to comfort her husband with literary analysis. She’s clearly invested in fiction’s broader project of understanding. High Mountains starts with a man searching for a crucifix, then moves to the widespread impact of Jesus’s life as a literary meme. But after priming the pump for a neat resolution embracing Christian theology, Martel artfully segues the conversation to the practical implications of faith. “How does one live an eternal idea in a daily way?” Maria asks her husband. Martel answers with Agatha Christie because he’s more interested in the story-as-explanation model of religiosity then the divine-word-as-fact model. The story with God may, indeed, be the better story, but it remains, first and foremost, a story. Martel is revealing a fundamental strength of religion, here: it is fungible; its vagueness allows it to be infinitely applicable to whatever trials face an individual or a group. Christian theology centered Tomás’s ire on a crucifix; so, too, did it provide Dr. Lozaro a method to connect with his late wife; it even plays a pivotal role with Peter in the novel’s closing movements. The story craft element of religion allows each of these actions to amplify meaning by tying them into an ongoing narrative.

With that in mind, we can look to the setting of High Mountains to identify an ecological role for religion to play in the 21st century. “Every country yearns to flaunt that glittering jewel called a mountain range,” Martel writes of the novel’s eponymous range. “[A]nd so this barren wasteland, too low to be alpine but too high to be usefully fertile, has been bedecked with a grand title.” Despite the rapid pace of technological advances seen throughout Portugal, Canada, and the United States in the nearly 80 years the novel covers, these mountains remain relatively frozen in time and ecologically pristine — no doubt precisely because they are of marginal use to industrialized society. So little has changed, in fact, that the consequences of Tomás’s visit in 1904 are still felt by residents when Peter Tovey returns in 1981. By contrasting the mountains with industrialized society, Martel critiques a culture that trivializes the natural world. Odo, Peter’s ape, best embodies that critique. We know little about Odo’s biography, but we do know that he was wild caught and extensively experimented upon before meeting Peter. The high mountains, then, close the loop for Odo; his emotional wellness (not to mention Peter’s spiritual wellbeing) improves as a direct result of returning to nature. Near the end of the book Peter’s son, Ben, who has been skeptical of his father’s new life, comes to the high mountains for a visit. Along with Odo they tour the local church.

As they leave the church Peter turns to his son. ‘Ben, you asked me a question. I don’t know what’s with all the apes. All I know is that Odo fills my life. He brings me joy.’

The ape grins and then lifts his hands and claps a few times, producing a muffled sound, as if quietly calling them to attention. Father and son both watch, transfixed.

‘That’s a hell of a state of grace,’ Ben says.

Despite his sarcasm, Ben is won over by Odo and by the connection to nature that he represents. Martel’s focus on returning to the land comes at a time when nations are weighing the need to reduce reliance on fossil fuels against a powerful desire to retain the standard of living legacy energy has enabled. These conflicting drives do not ready bedfellows make. In fact, they are the kinds of seemingly mutually exclusive trajectories that often prompt reactionary religiosity — the political right’s coalition of evangelicalism and climate change denial bears stunning witness to this phenomenon. Yet the trajectory of High Mountains suggests religion can be used as a vehicle to deliver a message of environmental stewardship. Conceived of this way, religion plays a persuasive role in contemporary life, as evidenced by a joint study by Yale and George Mason University released in November of 2015 titled “The Francis Effect,” which found that “Americans…became more engaged in and concerned about global warming” as a result of Pope Francis’s progressive stance on climate matters. “[F]indings suggest that the Pope’s teaching about global warming contributed to an increase in public engagement on the issue, and influenced the conversation about global warming in America.” Martel isn’t explicitly addressing climate concerns in his book, but he is advocating for a greater connection with the land. When he turns to religion to deliver his message, Martel, like the Pope, taps into a readymade infrastructure, which, as we’ve seen, is made all the more persuasive because of its narrative properties.

I didn’t really return home simply to have a conversation with my brother about religion. Rather it was the kind of thing that naturally comes up over the holidays when families reunite and divergent lives press back together often with all the subtlety of plate tectonics. The fiction simply provided a convenient way to frame the dichotomy of religion’s enduring power in a contemporary world that seems capable of operating without it. Ultimately, Martel’s work shows us that the form religiosity takes says more about historical precedent and cultural expediency than it does about spiritual purity or metaphysical veracity. What matters is not whether one believes in a higher power, but rather making use of whatever philosophical tools give life meaning and create vectors by which to effect change in the world. The meaning itself can either be shared, as with organized religions, personal and idiosyncratic, as with Maria Lozaro’s reading of Agatha Christie, or even as contrived as Portugal’s high mountains. What truly matters is finding a meaning because without that the world proves difficult to endure, let alone change. Martel’s religiosity is a practical an elegant one. There’s much to recommend it on that score. And, who knows? Martel may be right. Ultimately, it may come to pass that the story with God is not only the better story but also the necessary story. Maybe. But I’m still not convinced.

The Technological Panopticon: On Catie Disabato’s ‘The Ghost Network’


A contradictory interplay between fame and anonymity has come to define the early-21st century, where every Twitter handle allows a peer-to-peer exchange in the servers of cyberspace, while actual flesh and blood people remain cloistered behind their devices. Even as technology creeps further and further into our lives (your phone was the last thing you looked at before going to bed last night, and it was likely the first thing you reached for the moment you woke up this morning), there remains a fundamental distance between individuals. All it takes is turning the phone off, and suddenly you’re a balloon unfettered, blowing away in the wind. In a sense, that’s the choice the protagonist of Catie Disabato’s debut novel, The Ghost Network, makes. Enigmatic pop star Molly Metropolis, a biracial Lady Gaga type, has risen to fame on a wave of unlikely EDM hits. While her music garners fans, her true allure stems from a mysterious persona in constant conflict between transparency and secrecy. She walls herself off behind a hedge of intimates while simultaneously stoking a direct relationship with her fans through social media and the regular channels of celebrity. At the peak of her fame, Molly chooses to disappear, setting off a series of quests to uncover the truth behind her sudden departure. Disabato suggests, however, that retreating into anonymity may not actually be possible.

A book about our conflicted relationship with anonymity is particularly apt at this moment in American history. Technology has ushered in an era of connectivity unimaginable until recent years. Never have we been more interconnected with our communities, families, and government. The benefits are legion. Loved ones are never out of reach. After a night of drinking, Uber is never more than a few minutes away. And virtually every quanta of human knowledge is readily accessible by every citizen for free thanks to Google and its ilk. That tremendous power, of course, comes at a price: a deep and constant surveillance. Disabato’s book features a large, open eye on the cover. The image sums up the novel’s feel, while also perfectly capturing the imbalance of power in our post-Edward Snowden democracy. Surveillance in 21st century America goes only one way — from the top down. Forget terms like “the digital age;” a better descriptor would be “the panopticon age.” A panopticon specifically refers to a prison designed so that all inmates are potentially visible by a central, unseen jailor. It’s an old design, and one that is notoriously psychologically violent to the imprisoned. By creating the possibility of complete scrutiny, a prisoner’s willingness to deviate from sanctioned actions atrophies. The rule of law may endure, but often it comes at the expense of the imprisoned subject’s sanity. Few of us inhabit physical panopticons, but our increasingly digital lives allow for the same kind of comprehensive observation.

Molly Metropolis’s disappearance and the subsequent manhunt bring up some uncomfortable questions when examined through this filter of surveillance, chiefly: When does a citizen’s ability to opt-out cease? Disabato suggests the city provides some relief in the form of anonymity. Another pop star, John Lennon liked New York precisely because he could disappear into the urban fabric. Pop stars make good proxies for a surveilled populace because they live largely public lives, a state that, until recent history, was barred to most people. Of course, nowadays, we all live that way, or potentially do. Any city is a cipher; its vast and often conflicting history is a tapestry of human ambition, a receptacle for realized and unrealized potential. The eponymous “Ghost Network” of Disabato’s book is a massive multimedia art piece attempting to reify some of that potential by synthesizing every Chicago transit line, real or proposed, or built and lost, into a living document. Designed and executed by Molly and a cohort of intimates, the project is an extension of Molly’s obsession with Guy Debord and the Situationist International, a mid-20th-century avant-garde and anti-authoritarian revolutionary group committed to critiquing what they saw as the “spectacle” of a modern life mediated by objects. Part map, part wiki page, the “Ghost Network” is a breathtakingly beautiful and, ultimately, foolhardy endeavor. As Rebecca Solnit points out in the introduction to her atlas, Infinite City, all maps have structural limitations, writing: “A map is in its essence and intent an arbitrary selection of information.” Solnit’s atlas is a palimpsest of another city, San Francisco, but the underlying principles apply broadly. Reading such a text may provide pleasure by satisfying historical curiosities, but it can never fully explain its subject. The structural limitations are simply insurmountable. Yet Disabato’s hybrid map hints at a utopian vision for the city’s potential to be a place where one can simultaneously take advantage of the benefits of technology without ceding the right to privacy. There’s an unmappable critical mass of humanity in cities, and, if all else fails, she suggests, you can always cut the connection and disappear into urban anonymity. One of Molly’s intimates, Nick Berliner, does just that when he embarks on long, aimless walks through Chicago. For Berliner, it’s a pseudo-revolutionary act rooted in Situationist principles of disruption. The walking, Disabato writes, “chang[ed] course based on feeling rather than on traffic signals, breaking the boundaries implicit in the inflexible confines of roadways, sidewalks, and other route designators.” The city, then, is a confrontational space, too, one that, paradoxically, provides for the possibility of security by violating the very boundaries meant to safeguard a modern life. But, as history shows, John Lennon wasn’t always safe in his metropolis. Why should we expect security in ours?

None of us, it seems, can resist the temptation to take advantage of our technology, despite knowing the terrifying extent to which our quotidian existence is surveilled. (I’m writing this in Google Drive, which means the first reader will be the NSA.) Just as Solnit’s atlas practices a selective amnesia when mapping certain elements while ignoring others, so, too, do we delight in the ubiquity of personal correspondences, while choosing not to acknowledge the watchful eye of surveillance. Disabato seems to suggest that, in fact, we are compelled by our inquisitive nature to erode privacy. Whatever statement Molly Metropolis desires to make with her disappearance is undercut by her work on the “Ghost Network.” For what is a chimerical map of the realized and proposed Chicago transit system — the very means of human movement through an urban landscape — but an offering to our fundamental desire to know everything, including the ways we navigate our environment, or, to employ the parlance of the NSA, the “metadata” of our quotidian existence? The danger isn’t knowledge, but rather the loss of privacy; a panopticon is damaging precisely because constant observation erodes a subject’s will to resist. Without privacy, we become conformists, our own jailers. To have the knowledge while retaining privacy represents the utopian drive at the center of this book and the conflict ensnaring its protagonist, a pop star enamored of a philosophy diametrically opposed to celebrity.

If Disabato aspires to the impossible, she’s not alone on that path. Marisha Pessl’s Night Film has similar ambitions, employing its own mixed-media approach to generate its animating enigma. In Night Film, a disgraced journalist goes to great pains to investigate the mysterious death of a reclusive director’s daughter. While they approach on different tacks — Disabato’s is a pop star and Pessl’s an auteur in the horror genre — both novelists are sailing towards the same mark. Examining celebrity, they are writing toward a critique of the technological panopticon, while simultaneously enthralled by its ability to, among other things, generate interest in those very books. A recent promotion by Disabato’s publisher, Melville House, encouraged readers to use social media to locate free copies of her book deposited around New York City. Similarly, an app for Night Film allows readers of that book to “decode” hidden content in the text. Both approaches are clever plays by savvy publishers and authors to exploit their novels’ content in a way that complements the digital lifestyles of readers, but they strike me also as an insidious creep of surveillance into one of the few spheres of disconnected living remaining in our modern world. As a reader, there’s nothing forcing you to scan the text, but who among us can resist a literary Easter egg (or a free book)?

On it’s own there’s nothing wrong with an app that enriches a reading experience anymore than there’s something wrong with possessing an archive in the form of text message histories of every funny message, photo, or GIF you’ve ever received from your spouse. These things undoubtedly enrich our lives, but there’s another side to that as well. Disabato and Pessl understand that. Taken together, our apps, text messages, travel records, etc. constitute the web of surveillance we’re spinning for ourselves everyday. They are our own personal atlases, our own “Ghost Networks,” except unbound by the necessary selectiveness of traditional maps, and they are open for examination (and exploitation) by anybody with the right technology and motivation.

Somebody is watching everybody in this book. Molly Metropolis’s obsession with Situationist philosophy and her subsequent disappearance are just too-rich catnip for some of the novel’s other central figures to pass up, so we get a meta-narrative with shades of a detective novel. The focus of all this inquisitiveness happens to be Molly, but it could be any one of us, really. The enigmatic pop chanteuse makes an excellent proxy for government surveillance of ordinary citizens; we’re all the celebrities of our own lives, after all. The “Ghost Network” and other artifacts left behind also hint at a third act, post-panopticon utopia hidden in the real world, one that requires a certain level of technological acumen to access but which remains obscured from surveillance — the physical analog to an anonymous manifesto. The very structure of Disabato’s book undercuts the point, however. At least to some extent, Molly is traceable even after she’s opted out. In effect, she’s hoisted up by her own petard. It’s not just Molly Metropolis who leaves behind a traceable digital footprint. We all do, and those footprints remain whether or not we disconnect. In the end, we are all in the panopticon. The question then becomes not if surveillance is avoidable but, rather, is anybody looking?