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?
In the late 1960s, Irving Layton, a Montreal Jewish poet who had risen to international fame a decade earlier, began to write poetry about the Holocaust. Like other Jewish artists of the period, his avoidance of the subject before then was almost conspicuous. Perhaps he was finally spurred to address the elephant in the room when he saw a new generation of poets do so, including his protégé Leonard Cohen, whose first collection, Flowers for Hitler, was published in 1964.
The Holocaust is so massive a subject that it can easily overshadow everything else in an artist’s work. When Layton began to acknowledge it more openly in his writing, he soon found it difficult not to write about the holocaust. Massacres and dead animals began to crop up with frightening regularity in his work; the loud, intractable violence choked every other topic and made them seem banal in comparison.
The poster for the Art Spiegelman exhibit currently showing at the Vancouver Art Gallery, “CO-MIX: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics and Scraps,” illustrates a related sentiment. The image is taken from a Spiegelman drawing from 1989 entitled “Self Portrait with Maus Mask.” In the foreground there’s the human Spiegelman with his usual shirt, vest, and cigarette, seated at his drawing table. An expressive mask of a mouse covers his face. His hands are pressed against his cheeks in a gesture of despair as he stares despondently at whatever he is trying to draw. In the background there hangs the covers of Maus I and an issue of RAW, the magazine thought up by Spiegelman’s wife Françoise Mouly, in which Maus was originally serialized. More ominously, a Nazi cat sharpshooter from the pages of Maus stands on a guard tower outside the window with stripes of barbed wire and a brick chimney belching black smoke.
In this image, we see the artist struggling to write and draw the subject he feels compelled to turn into art. We see Spiegelman dreading the inescapably difficult path he has set himself on.
The mouse mask echoes not only the mouse and cat metaphor Spiegelman uses illustrate Jews and Nazis in his book, but also the animal masks that characters wear when trying to pass off as members of groups there are not (so that Vladek Spiegelman is shown as a mouse wearing a pig’s mask when he is trying to pass as a non-Jewish Pole). By wearing the mask, Spiegelamn may also be showing us that he sees himself as a fraud when telling this story, because it isn’t really his to tell.
The self-portrait also represents Spiegelman’s very real struggle to finish writing Maus after the publication of the first volume in 1986, which garnered great acclaim. Spiegelman deals with this dilemma in the second chapter of Maus II, “Time Flies,” when he pulls a Cervantes and steps back from the narrative to address the reader and discuss the publication of the first volume. In the images, Spiegelman shrinks to the size of a child under the aggressive questions of journalists and businessmen who try to turn his book into a commercial product. The writer finally retreats to the home of his wise but eccentric shrink, who happens to keep framed photos of his dogs and cats.
Finally, “Self Portrait with Maus Mask” is an artistic manifestation of the struggle that was to come after the publication of Maus II in 1991, when Spiegelman found himself unable to take off his mouse mask and write a narrative about anything else. The black stain of the holocaust had spilled onto his drawing table.
The Art Spiegelman exhibit, which collects decades of material from the artist’s personal collection, makes the artist’s struggle visible on the curated walls of a museum. One of the most enlightening aspects of the exhibit for me was its ability to portray Spiegelman’s chronology. There’s the explosive, variform comix of his youth, some of which was eventually collected in Breakdowns, in parallel with his hilarious work as art director of Topps, including the infamous Garbage Pail Kids, which gave him the income necessary to work on his personal projects. There’s the decade of scandalous New Yorker covers (not all of which were accepted) which followed Maus in the ’90s: a Hassidic Jew kissing a black woman, a presidential press conference with all microphones turned towards Clinton’s crotch, a haggard-looking concentration camp prisoner holding an Oscar to mark the success of Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful. And then came the recovery of Spiegelman’s voice as a narrative comic artist in the wake of 9/11 with In the Shadow of No Towers, his intensely political, satirical, personal account of the attack on the World Trade Center and its aftermath, printed as a board book to avoid the image-splicing seams of usual bindings.
The room devoted to Maus in the exhibit hushes visitors when they walk in. It is darker than the other rooms, and the walls are more cluttered: the finished pages of a few chapters are spread out horizontally at eye level and preliminary sketches extend above and below them. Historical documents, mementos, and source material are displayed in a handful of glass cases in the center of the room, while overhead the frank voice of Spiegelman’s father Vladek can be heard recounting his experience during World War II in one of the recordings which were the basis for the book.
The depth of Spiegelman’s talent and craft is immediately obvious from a glance at any page from Maus. He employs a dark, heavily striated style that replicates something drawn quickly, furiously. Yet the draft pages for Maus demonstrate that, in fact, Spiegelman slaved over each image to find just the right framing, the correct length of eyebrow to create the desired expression on his characters’ anthropomorphic faces. The highly energetic technique displayed in Maus only serves to make individual drawings more compelling — clear enough to be immediately recognizable, cramped enough to demand careful attention. At the same time, there is a fluidity in the drawings that helps each panel meld into the others and create a powerful impression that goes far beyond the punch of its constituent pieces.
I was also amazed, looking at the variety of pictures hanging in the other rooms of this exhibit, to discover the breadth of Spiegelman’s work. His drawing and narrative style is surprisingly flexible, adapting to the requirements of the story he is telling. He was once commissioned to design covers for the German editions of Boris Vian’s books. He drew lurid, sexy collage images with sharp lines and bold blocks of color, inspired by 1950s comics and cubism; he also took advantage of the book’s spine for mirroring effects between the front and back covers and the placement of elongated objects. In The Prisoner on the Hell Planet, Spiegelman uses stark contrasts and an expressionist style in both his text and drawings to express the deeply personal impact of his mother’s suicide.
In the exhibit, I also discovered with a great pleasure a short graphic piece Spiegelman made to commemorate the retirement of Charles Schulz. Spiegelman draws himself as a simplified mouse ruminating on the roof of a doghouse in honor of his subject’s work; even the font he uses for his characters’ speech is borrowed from Peanuts. “At its best, which was often,” Spiegelman writes, “the strip had the simplicity and depth charge of a haiku…only easier to understand.” In the next panel, Snoopy has appeared and is surprised to find another animal sitting on top of his doghouse. Spiegelman adds: “…and cuter.” Spiegelman’s work, in spite of the animals, is rarely cute — and yet here, to honor his subject, he too has made his own style as light and pleasant as a Peanuts strip.
It is through pieces like this that Spiegelman has continued to help nudge comics into rich new territory. After showing that it was possible to write a graphic memoir that couldn’t work in any other form (unless as a kind of doomed hybrid between Elie Wiesel’s Night and Brian Jacques’s Redwall), he began to experiment with essays in graphic form, like the piece on childhood he made for the McSweeney’s special “San Francisco Panorama” issue. On display at the exhibit is the original of another non-fiction piece on the same subject called “In the Dump,” co-written and drawn with Maurice Sendak for in the The New Yorker in 1993. In the piece, Spiegelman goes to visit the reclusive Sendak to discuss the realities of childhood and the nature of imagination. This piece is also impressive because it’s a full-on collaboration: Sendak and Spiegelman worked on the panels at the same time, each drawing himself and then working together on the background.
Born from universal ideas, crafted by the hands of artists, written with passion, the comic strip has become the medium for narratives that can be read again and again and images that can be stared at pensively in the hushed space of a museum.
Discussing his famous graphic novel V for Vendetta, Alan Moore once stated that he always preferred the original, serialized version of the book because it wasn’t in color. “The images were entirely in black and white,” he explains, “but the whole story, in moral terms, had only shades of grey.”
Something similar occurs in Maus, where the drawings often fall into a thick chiaroscuro and hard hatching turns page space into almost solid black. Arguably, no other story has been made to express absolute black and absolute white as clearly as World War II. So how can an artist integrate the textures of grey that make a story truly poignant?
Spiegelman allows his book to transcend its own purpose as a holocaust survival tale by crafting it as a metafiction. This was something I did not expect before I began to learn more about Maus and its writer. At first, I thought the book was just (although that’s not quite the right word) a story about holocaust survivors in which the Nazis are cats and the Jews are mice. But that story is only the core around which the other elements gravitate.
Maus is also very much about a son trying to come to terms with his father — it is an exploration of their relationship, in which the father’s story creates a bridge between them, a reason for them to get together and talk. Spiegelman was very clever in framing his father’s story in the war years with material from the present day: visiting his father, giving us a portrait of his life in old age, mulling over ethical questions, asking his father about specific details. The back and forth between past and present makes the story he tells all the more real.
But there’s still more. On a foundational level, Maus, like every work of literature that admits to being one, is a book about the process of writing a book. It explores not only the meaning of surviving the holocaust and managing a difficult father, but also the difficulties of drawing and writing about this father and telling his story. The fact that the reader is privy to Spiegelman’s questions, comments, and process within Maus, especially in the second volume, is essential to the book’s agenda.
One of Spiegelman’s most admirable qualities, expressed by both the man and his art, is an honest form of moral rectitude. He experienced the success of Maus with considerable discomfort, a discomfort he folded into the book itself: Is this his story to tell? Is he disrespecting the memory of the millions of people who died in the concentration camps by telling it? To this day, Spiegelman believes one of his greatest achievements is to have resisted attempts to make a film version of the book.
I believe his peculiar strength lies in his resolve not to go down the path of artists like Layton who, once they started, were unable to leave behind the subject of the holocaust. Spiegelman refuses to become a figure of authority on the holocaust, another Elie Wiesel. (The closest he has come, admittedly, is in his Life is Beautiful cover for The New Yorker.) Despite his struggle to find another narrative thrust for his graphic art after Maus, his decade of so-called silence was in fact one of his richest — most of his truly arresting shorter work and many pieces I used in this essay to illustrate his genius, were produced in this period. Besides, as Françoise Mouly has said, a decade is not really so long to find your voice again as a storyteller. And Spiegelman has proven that he has many more stories to tell.
“CO-MIX: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics and Scraps” is open at the Vancouver Art Gallery until June 9, 2013. It was originally shown at Angoulême and Paris, France, and then at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany. It will move to the Jewish Museum in New York later this year.