Pulitzer Prize winning author Anthony Doerr talks about his new novel, "Cloud Cuckoo Land," and why he says his job as a writer is to reveal our interconnections as people, and as a planet.
Canadian author Yann Martel is known for his blockbuster book “Life of Pi,” a novel about a boy lost at sea with a tiger. It won a Man Booker prize and was made into an Oscar-winning movie. His new book is three interconnected tales – a quest, a ghost story and fable. It’s set in the mythical mountains of Portugal in different time periods. Three men are grieving the death of loved ones and cope in different ways. Like “Life of Pi,” the book explores philosophical questions about faith and home. And it also includes an animal – this time, a chimpanzee.
- Yann Martel Author of "Life of Pi," which won the 2002 Man Booker Prize and was made into the Oscar-winning film directed by Ang Lee
Read An Excerpt
From the book THE HIGH MOUNTAINS OF PORTUGAL by Yann Martel. Copyright © 2016 Yann Martel. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR. I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on a book tour. Author Yann Martel's bestselling book, "Life of Pi" tells the story of a long journey in a boat. Martel's new novel also begins with a trip. It's 1904 in Lisbon, Portugal. A young man struggling with a death, within a single of his son, his lover and then his father. In an old journal that he finds, there's a mention of a crucifix and the man goes on a quest to find it. The book is "The High Mountains of Portugal."
MR. TOM GJELTENAuthor, Yann Martel, joins me from KQED studios in San Francisco. He's on a phone line right now. I'm sure we'll get him in quality as soon as we can get the lines fixed. I'm sure a lot of you read "Life of Pi" and are eager to hear about Yann's new novel. You can be part of our conversation. Call us at 1-800-433-8850. You can also email us, email@example.com. And you call always send in comments or questions via Facebook or Twitter.
MR. TOM GJELTENYann, are you -- can you hear me? Are you on the line with us now? Okay. Well, we are going to have to wait until Yann's line is set up. Again, our phone number is 1-800-433-8850. And until we get this connection established with Yann Martel, I'd be eager to hear from you right off the bat, those of you who have read "Life of Pi," your thoughts about it, your questions, your expectations for this new novel.
MR. TOM GJELTENFor those of you who did not read "Life of Pi," remember it's the amazing story of a boy who was lost at sea, set adrift and he is in a boat with a tiger. And there is an amazing story. And at the end of it, we're not quite sure what that story was all about. And I'm told we now have Yann Martel on the line with us. Can you hear us now, Yann?
MR. YANN MARTELVery well. Good morning, Tom.
GJELTENGood morning. Thanks. So as I just mentioned to our listeners, when you end the "Life of Pi," you think you have followed the story, you think you know what has happened and then there's this kind of strange author's note, which is -- it's author's note except that it's part of the story, isn't it? And all of a sudden, we realize that maybe the story that we thought was true was not the real story, that there was another story. And you mentioned in that author's note the relativity of truth.
GJELTENAnd that seems to be a theme that you revisit in your new novel as well. Tell us what you mean by the relativity of truth and how is it now that this same theme is coming up in your new book.
MARTELWell, I wouldn't say I used the word relativity of truth, which I actually don't use in the book at all. It's not so much the relativity as the fact that truth -- there are many kinds of truths. Of course, there are factual truths. We all know a lie when we see one. There are different factual truths. But my argument is that much of life is an interpretation. There's a subjectivity to life. Life is not just an accounting of facts. It's how you explain those facts, how you interpret them.
MARTELSo in "Life of Pi," in a sense, it's a profoundly democratic novel. It's novel of choice. So you have one set of facts, a ship sinks, a whole family dies and at the end of 227 days, you have one survivor who reaches the coast of Mexico. And he accounts for those day at sea in two different ways. In one story there are animals, a tiger, a hyena, an orangutan and a zebra, and in other story, there aren't. There are four human survivors. And the key question in the novel, at the end of it, when the two investigators are about to leave -- 'cause neither story has explained the sinking of the ship, they're about to leave and Pi asks them, which is the better story.
MARTELNot which is the true story 'cause in either way, he's the only one that was a witness. They can only take his word for it. So it's not so much about the relativity of truth, but about the subjectivity of it, that truth is made of made of many things. Factual truth, yes, but then there's a lot of other truth, psychological, emotional truths, aesthetic truths. And in a sense, that's -- and you mentioned the author's note. In the author's note, there's this line that the old Indian man who meets the author says, oh, I was told it will make you believe in God. And that proof of God is not in the story.
MARTELIt's not that Pi overcomes adversity. That proves nothing. It's that there are choices to be made in life. You can interpret life in many ways and you can weave in a strand of magical thinking in your interpretation of life or you can just have a purely materialist reading of life. In the sense, that's the proof. It's simply that there is a choice in the way you read life.
GJELTENAnd tell me how those questions, those principles that you just discuss now come out again in your new book on "The High Mountains of Portugal."
MARTELWell, a little bit of background to that. I come from Quebec, from French Canada, which is the most secular administration, the most secular province in all of North America. And there's an event in the early '60s called The Quiet Revolution in which, literally, the entire province abandoned its religious thinking and went from being the most backwardly Catholic province in Canada to the most forward-looking progressive social Democratic. And my parents were children of that revolution and I was a grandchild of it.
MARTELAnd so I grew up in a household where art replaced religion. If you wanted to understand life, you read great novels, looked at great paintings, listened to great music. And those are the tools we had to understand who we are and why we are. And I was quite happy with that, but by the time I was in my 30s, I happened to be traveling in India and I saw, for the first time, another aspect of religion 'cause up till then, I knew just enough about religion to hate it.
MARTELI hated its homophobia, its sexism, its patriarchy, all the ills of organized religion. But when I got to India, I noticed, because it was an exotic country practicing an exotic religion to me, Hinduism, I suddenly saw the more benign aspect of it and I, for the first time, looked at what is key in religion, which is faith. And since then, I've become interested in faith. In this case, religious faith, but not just the most fantastical of faiths. We all operate, at some level, on faith, whether it's faith in a loved one, in a political system, in a football team.
MARTELIn many ways, aspects of our lives, we are not motivated by reason, but by faith. And so I became interested in faith and that's reflected in "Life of Pi" and in "The High Mountains of Portugal" because, in a sense, you need a sense of faith, a faith in something before you can then properly apply your rationality. And reason is an extraordinary tool. It got us on the moon. It got us computers. It got us talking to each other. Here I'm in San Francisco. You're in Washington. Our lives have been immeasurably improved by reason, but it only makes sense to use reason once you have a reason to use it and that cannot be a reasonable reason.
MARTELIt has to be a faith reason. And so I've become interested in faith and "The High Mountains of Portugal" is an ongoing examination of that curious phenomenon called faith.
GJELTENAnd in both "Life of Pi" and "The High Mountains of Portugal," you get into those questions of faith and religion through grief. You clearly see a connection. There must be something in that moment of grief when one's faith or religion becomes all the more important. I'm gonna read two sentences here from right in the very beginning of your book. "In the course of one week, Gaspar died on Monday, Dora, his lover, on Thursday, his father on Sunday. His heart became undone like a bursting cocoon, emerging from it came no butterfly, but a gray moth that settled on the wall of his soul and stirred no farther."
GJELTENSo here, you begin, the first thing you talk about in this book is loss and grief and death. And from there, you move into this exploration of religion and faith.
MARTELAbsolutely. To me, the, first of all, story starts with something happening, something dramatic. And I think, in a sense, so does religion. The point of religion, I think, is to deal with adversity. Religion -- and I say this whether people like religion or not and I'm not talking of any particular religion. But one of the extraordinary things about religion is its capacity to put suffering into context. So in this novel, it's a novel in three distinct stories, each one starts with a character who has lost someone very close to them.
MARTELSo you mentioned Tomas has lost his lover, their son and his father. The other sections, too, start -- the opening premise is someone has suffered. What do you do with that suffering? Where do you go with it? And I think that's a question that applies to all of us, even the happiest of us eventually will have to face unhappiness. That happiness will have to end. We have to learn how to let go. I think that is the key lesson in life is letting go. And the questions that I ask is how do we let go of faith?
MARTELSorry. How do we let go of suffering? How do we let go of life? And that makes particular sense in the religious context. Religion is always talking about finality and what it means and how we deal with it.
GJELTENAnd when his lover has just died, she's lying there. And tell us the moment, what he sees of her, what is she holding in her arms even in death and what that means for him.
MARTELWell, this is Portugal in the 1930s so she's holding a crucifix. She's a devout Catholic. And he, like I expect a lot of people in some places, is sort of devout on the inside--on the outside and quite indifferent on the inside to religious matters. And his lover is dying of diphtheria. And as she's dying, she grabs this crucifix and holds onto it. And at that moment, he looks at it and he realizes that religion is either to be taken utterly seriously, or utterly not seriously. You either radically believe in it or you radically disbelieve in it.
MARTELI think religion is one of those things where you can't sit on the fence. Or you can, of course. I mean, in fact, the standard position of most people is sort of an unexamined agnosticism where they just think there's not enough evidence. And my thinking to that is after -- just to take the example of Christianity, after 2,000 years of Christianity, the Jesus event of 2,000 years ago, the history of the Catholic Church and of the Protestant churches, the witness of thousands and millions of believers, all the Christian stories, saints and miracles and all that, if all of that cumulatively somehow isn't enough evidence one way or the other, what evidence would work?
GJELTENOkay. Yann Martel is the author of the bestseller, "Life of Pi." We're talking about his new book. We're gonna take a short break. I'm Tom Gjelten. This is "The Diane Rehm Show."
GJELTENHello, again. I'm Tom Gjelten from NPR and I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we have as our guest this morning, Yann Martel, who is the author of the huge bestseller, "Life of Pi." The book won the Man Booker Prize in 2002 and was made into an Oscar-winning film. And I want to apologize to our listeners. We had some technical problems at the top of the show. First, we didn't get Yann at all. And then when we did get him, it was only by a phone line. But, Yann, I think we're connected in quality now. We can hear each other a lot better, right?
MARTELI was hearing you very well before.
GJELTENOkay. We didn't hear you.
MARTELBut I'm glad it's even better quality now for listeners.
GJELTENIt is better. It is better quality. And I want to apologize to you, Yann, that I sort of cut you off a little bit before the break because we were coming up on a hard break there. But you were describing this very important scene at the beginning of the book when Tomas, the narrator, the character, loses his son, his lover, Dora, and his father. And when he's with Dora, he finds that she has clutched a crucifix in her arms, which kind of leads to this question for Tomas of what to make of it, what to make of religion.
GJELTEN"He stared," I'm reading from your book, "He stared at the crucifix balancing between utter belief and utter disbelief. Before he had cast his lot one way or the other, he had thought to keep the crucifix as a memento. But Dora, or rather Dora's body would not let go. Her hands and arms touched the object with unyielding might, even as he practically lifted her body off the bed trying to wrench it from her."
GJELTENAnd then, a few lines later, you write, "He glared at the crucifix and hissed, you, you, I will deal with you. Just you wait." So tell us what you indicate here. What you -- this symbol of the crucifix, what does that mean for Tomas and how does it come to dominate the story -- the first of these three stories that you tell? What is the significance of it?
MARTELTomas has suffered and his reaction is to be angry. So his quest -- so to start with, in this first part of the novel, the first thing that Tomas does once his -- the three people he loved most have died, is for -- the first thing he does is he starts walking backwards. His way of objecting to what has happened to him is to turn his back to the world, turn his back to God. So he quite literally walks backwards everywhere, all the time now, symbolizing his...
GJELTENThere's a wonderful description of that and how he manages to navigate walking backward.
MARTELYes. I practiced that actually in Saskatoon where I live. I walked around some blocks practicing walking backwards. It was -- actually it wasn't the looking behind that needed work, it was actually the mechanics of walking, how high to lift my foot, how much I bend my knee, how I drop my foot to touch to make contact with the pavement. At any rate, he's objecting to the world and to God by walking backwards. And then he discovers this diary and it leads him on a quest across Portugal to this remote corner, looking for an object, which we discover as we -- as you read the novel.
MARTELAnd the novel is called "The High Mountains of Portugal," even though, as two of the characters report in the book, there are no high mountains in Portugal. These are mountains that are mountains in the mind. These are mountains that you climb in your head. And in this case, in part one, Tomas wants to conquer this mountain. His quest is essentially negative.
GJELTENNow, you say there are no mountains in Portugal. But the name that you give these mountains, there actually is (unintelligible) beyond the mountains. And it's -- that's a real name, right?
MARTELYeah, yeah. Portugal was the first country I traveled to on my own. I was 20 years old and I backpacked around Portugal. And I came to this area in the northeast, the most remote part of Portugal, and it's called Tras-os-Montes, which means beyond or behind the mountains. And there are no mountains. And it was even more curious that not only do you pause at mountains that don't exist but then you're main preoccupation is what's beyond them, what's beyond these illusory mountains. So it just always stayed with me, what an odd thing.
MARTELAnd I realized that geography is a kind of storytelling. It is an act of the imagination where you take landscapes and you give them names, in an attempt to, you know, to feel at home in these landscapes. And so this was one very curious Portuguese way of doing it, of claiming mountains that weren't there and then being preoccupied what was beyond them, which is why I eventually came to call this novel "The High Mountains of Portugal." Because we all have mountains we want to climb that we want to be on top of. So Tomas, in this first section, wants to conquer the mountain.
MARTELIn part three, we have someone who in a sense is atop a mountain meditating on it. In a sense, he was a sort of image of the sort of Buddhist monk, you know, meditating on top of a mountain. So they're all -- they tell about mountains, really, but mountains in the heart and the mind.
GJELTENYann, give us a little -- just a very brief synopsis of the first of the three tales in your book: the story of Tomas and going on this quest.
MARTELYeah. Tomas is a curator in a museum -- a real museum, a museum of ancient art in Lisbon. And through his research, he comes upon a diary written by a 17th century priest on the Portuguese colony of Sao Tome, which is on the equatorial coast of Africa, the western coast of Africa, a little, tiny island that played an important role during the slave trade. The Portuguese were active slave traders gathering slaves from Mozambique and Angola. And they would often resupply themselves on this tiny island colony called Sao Tome before doing the middle passage. You know, there was a crossing in the Atlantic to Brazil to supply Brazil with slaves for the cane fields.
MARTELAnd this priest, Father Ulysses, is writing this diary. And he's profoundly, profoundly homesick. I should say the three sections are called Homeless, Homeward, Home. And in part one, this priest in Sao Tome is profoundly homesick. Not only in a conventional way of wanting to be back in Portugal, but I guess, in a grander way, he's homesick of life. And as a result, he starts a diary. And one day, as he's in the port of Sao Tome, every day he's there to bless. His role as a Catholic priest -- it was very interesting. The Catholic church was quite ambiguous when it came to slavery. He couldn't quite decide where it stood.
MARTELAnd not for, you know, as far as -- and this is just the Catholic perspective centuries ago -- it was that it was a technicality if someone was literally a slave. Because everyone was a slave to sin. Everyone was a slave to temptation. And if one were technically, in addition, a real slave, that was of no great consequence. Because a slave, by dint of moral efforts -- of moral effort, could reach higher than a putatively free person who was slothful. So they had a very ambiguous rule. But at any rate, here's this priest who's role it was to bless slaves in a language they didn't understand and, you know, welcoming them to a faith they didn't practice.
MARTELBut anyway that was the sort of the contradiction, I thought, that they were -- he was there blessing slaves and he grows weary of it. And one day he sees four captives coming off one of the ships, one of the slave ships and he's struck by their suffering. For the first time, he -- because until then he's slightly indifferent to the suffering of the slaves. He says, in a sense, you know, they suffer but so do I. So what of it? That's our basic condition here on this earth. So I'm not particularly impressed by your suffering. It finally takes the suffering of these four captives for him to realize -- to see their suffering. And it changes him.
MARTELAnd then he starts constructing this object -- this curious, very curious object that is -- that he hints at in this diary. And Tomas guesses what it is. And he goes out to find it.
GJELTENAnd why is Tomas so -- why does Tomas become so obsessed with that story and that object in particular? What is it about that story that's so -- grabs hold of Tomas?
MARTELBecause there's two reactions, I think, to suffering. And one of them is anger. Anger is a very powerful emotion and you can really ride a long time on it. You can be vengeful for a very long time. You can -- we hold grudges for years and years and years. So in a slightly helpless way, he's a man who has a grudge. And he feels that, through this object, he makes a statement that will somehow make a difference. And at the end of it, we'll have to see. The reader will discover whether it does make a difference or not. But he looks at this object. Now, I don't want to say too much about the book.
GJELTENI don't blame you.
MARTELBut once again, in this book, I use animals as one of my main metaphors.
MARTELI use animals. So animals play a role in this too. I'm being very ambiguous now, because I don't want to -- I guess I don't want to say too much about part one, because otherwise it'll sort of dispel, hopefully, the mystery of it.
GJELTENHmm. So, as you mentioned, part one is titled -- the first novella is titled "Homeless." The second is titled "Homeward." And the third is titled "Home." That certainly suggests a progression from homelessness to homeward...
GJELTEN...to home. Can you explain a little bit what you're getting at there?
MARTELYeah. There is a progression. I -- each of the sections has a different emotional tinge, a different -- it describes a different state of being. So in part one, it's essentially a negative state of being. And all this, I'm, by the way, I'm sort of reducing the story. It, you know, when you read it, the act of reading will expand it like sort of yeast makes dough rise here. But anyway, in part one, it's essentially a negative quest. In part two, "Homeward," it's obviously more positive. And in part three, there's a sense of home.
MARTELAlthough in part three, oddly enough, it features a Canadian who is -- the section is called "Home," even though he's living in Portugal. He's a foreigner who does not speak the language, knows no one in the village. And yet it is called "Home," because he nonetheless achieves a sense of home, a sense of belonging. So those are rough guidelines for the reader. They're sort of indicating a sort of a thematic direction.
GJELTENYeah. Now one of the fascinating aspects -- and we won't get into detail about it -- is that even though these three stories are set decades apart and involve very different situations and seem totally separate, you managed to connect them in some tiny but meaningful ways.
MARTELAbsolutely. They are -- well, I said, they each feature animals, specifically a chimpanzee. They each briefly allude to rhinoceroses. They are definitely linked. There's things -- and I think of them as sort of being like palimpsest. There's something that happens in part one that you will see through -- that will still show itself in part two and subsequently in part three. And they are also linked in that the whole novel is very broadly an allegory on the life of Jesus. And I don't say that from a faith-based perspective. I'm just saying that as that my literally parallel is that of Jesus.
MARTELBecause what's interesting about the Jesus event -- whether you believe in Jesus or not, whether you have any particular faith -- is that, unique among religious figures, his life remarkably parallels that -- our lives. In that, Jesus was born -- and usually we're not used to God's being born -- Jesus was born, grew up, tried his best, was crucified. And we all have a same -- similar life. We're born. We grow up. We try our best. And we die. There is a parallel there that is quite unique among religious figures. So very broadly I set up this narrative arch that's supposed to follow that. So in each section, I'm looking at a different relationship with the object of one's faith. And therefore, each has a different tinge. So that links all three stories.
MARTELSo they're sort of progressive. They definitely are linked. And I wouldn't even say they're -- to me, it was one -- it is one novel. But, you're right, it's in three quite distinct sections.
GJELTENNow I understand that you actually -- some of your original writing and thinking about this actually predates -- in fact, it was how many years ago that you started thinking about these -- this -- these characters or this situation or this idea? It goes a long ways back, right, Yann?
MARTELIt does, yeah. In my early 20s, when I was at university, I started work on a novel set in Portugal featuring an animal. In this case, it was a talking dog. But I had -- I was too immature both as a person and as a writer to pull it off. So I just put it aside. And then those who have read "Life of Pi" will remember in the author's note, the author goes to India. And he goes to India meaning to work on a novel set in Portugal. It's this very same novel. And finally, only a few years ago, did I sort of -- did it sort of come alive in my mind and was I able to write it. So elements of it, a certain preoccupation has been with me for a long time. But it's changed a lot over the course of the years.
GJELTENYann Martel is the -- he's talking about his new book, "The High Mountains of Portugal." And you will know him as the author of the best-seller "Life of Pi." I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." So I'm curious, Yann, what it means for a writer to have such a hugely successful book like the "Life of Pi," and how it affects your continued writing. On the one hand, I can imagine it gives you the self confidence to perhaps be more experimental. Does it in any way -- is there any negative effect? Does it take away the sort of the fire in the belly, the, you know, the insecurity that can maybe fuel creativity? I mean, how has it changed your writing, the fact that you had such commercial success with "Life of Pi"?
MARTELIt doesn't change the writing at all, neither positively nor negatively. I mean, whatever strength you have as a writer or whatever weaknesses don't really change once you have success, in that, every new novel is a different attempt to do something. So I hit a homerun with "Life of Pi." Well, then the next one I wrote was "Beatrice and Virgil," which was shorter than "Life of Pi" and very difficult to pull off and just was a whole different ballgame. So the success of "Life of Pi" was neither here nor there. You know, it was beyond the door of my studios in the outside world in a little tiny -- in my little tiny studio, I was wrestling with new questions of how to do something. Was it working? If it wasn't, how could I change it? It was just a whole new book.
MARTELSo it made no difference. What it did do very practically, obviously, is that it gave me enough money that I don't have to worry about, you know, I have four children. Now I can afford to have four children. And so it takes that off. And for that I'm eternally grateful. And other than that, it's kind of a parallel aspect of my life. I'm still delighted at the story -- at the success of "Life of Pi." It was a profoundly joyful book to write. I loved working on "Life of Pi." And it was immensely satisfying to enjoy its success, to travel the world and meet readers.
MARTELBecause that's the real gauge of its success. It has nothing to do with its commercial success, although one way that it becomes irrelevant. I mean how much money does a person need? At one point it becomes irrelevant. The real gauge of its success was meeting readers, whether directly at festivals or book launches, or through the letters that I continue to get to this day. Don't forget, the book is sort of old to me. I haven't read it in years. But to anyone who reads it, it's brand new. And the impact on them is -- can be tremendous. And they write to me.
MARTELAnd some of them I really -- it's not just, you know, I'm writing to you because I liked your book. I remember reading quite -- receiving letters that were quite horrifying. You know, people who were sick and their tumor becomes a tiger in a lifeboat. And they must learn to live with that tumor. They must dominate that tumor. Or I remember one woman was kidnapped by her taxi driver and held hostage for three days and raped over the course of three days and she'd just finished reading "Life of Pi." So same thing, the taxi driver became the tiger and she had to, you know, she had to survive living with that tiger.
MARTELSo they take on that metaphor of mine -- people I don't even know, complete strangers -- and make it their own. That meeting of minds over a book I wrote is the thing I'm most grateful for.
GJELTENAnd you don't -- and it doesn't create a standard in your own mind that you have to surpass or meet? Are you able to free yourself from that experience as you, you know, write new novels?
MARTELCompletely. I mean, the next book, you know, is a allegory on the Holocaust. It was an attempt to represent the Holocaust differently. We tend to always represent the Holocaust in social, realistic terms. This was an attempt to do it completely different. That had nothing to do with "Life of Pi." And then this one is, once again, something completely different that I thought of, as you mentioned earlier, much, much earlier, much before "Life of Pi." No, you just, you know, it's the book that has done well.
MARTELMeanwhile, I'm -- I live in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. You know, most Americans I'd have to sort of give a little geography lesson as to where that is. And I have four children who are completely unimpressed by the fact that I have written a book called "Life of Pi." They're completely indifferent to it. They just roll their eyes. So that, you know, that keeps it real.
GJELTENWere you at least able get a new house or upgrade your living conditions?
MARTELYeah, I have. But, you know, the fact that I write at religion, the fact that I studied philosophy, I'm not much of a, you know, consumeristic, materialistic kind of guy. I have a house -- because I have four children and both my partner and I are writers, we both work at home -- we do need a bigger house. But I cannot wait to downsize.
GJELTENYann Martel is the author of the bestseller "Life of Pi." And there is also a movie, which many people saw. It won an Oscar, directed by Ang Lee. And Yann's other books include "Self," and as he said, "Beatrice and Virgil." His new book is "The High Mountains of Portugal." We are going to be taking a break here shortly. And then when we come back, we're going to give Yann's fans a chance to come into our conversation with their questions and comments. I'm Tom Gjelten. This is "The Diane Rehm Show." We'll be right back after a short break.
GJELTENAnd welcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten from NPR and I'm sitting in today for Diane Rehm. And our guest this hour is Yann Martel, best known as the author of the bestselling book, "Life of Pi." He has a new book, "The High Mountains of Portugal." And Yann is in our studios in San Francisco, at KQED, and is joining us. Remember, our phone number is 1-800-433-8850. And we're gonna go to our listeners in just a moment.
GJELTENHere's a question, Yann. You write a lot in both these books about grief, about loss, about religion, about faith. And yet, I've seen from some of the interviews that you've given that these are not necessarily things that you, I mean, you talked in the beginning that you grew up in a very secular, even agnostic household. So your interest in faith didn't come there. And I don't -- is it -- may I ask a personal question? I mean, did it just -- does your understanding of grief come from your own personal experience, or are you exploring these issues sort of objectively, imagining what people are going through with these issues as opposed to subjectively?
MARTELThat's exactly it. Exactly. It's the role of an artist to explore. I think reading a book is sort of like traveling. You're exploring other realities. So I've had the luck of never having a particularly awful thing happen to me, but I notice it in others. First of all, in the books that I've read and the things that I read in newspapers and in studying philosophy and, you know, becoming lately interested in religion. All of these made very clear that life only makes sense in terms of its finality, in terms of things that hedge at life, that, you know, that nip at it.
MARTELAnd that is death and death and dying. So I've just always been aware of it. And for a while in Montreal, where I used to live, I was a volunteer in palliative care, in care for the dying. So every Thursday morning I would be -- I'd spend five hours with people who are dying, trying to make them more comfortable in, you know, sometimes very mundane little ways of massaging them, their foot, or bringing them a coffee or something like that. And, curiously, it wasn't a depressing experience. It was a sobering experience.
MARTELIt made me realize how precious and fleeting life is. And therefore, one should, you know, live it well. So I guess it's just my disposition. I'm not at all morbid. I'm not lugubrious. Nothing's ever happened to me that was very bad. So you're right. It is a sort of dispassionate examination, and that goes of grief and death and also of religion. I've become much more sympathetic to religion. Of course, I condemn all the crazy stuff out there, what ISIS is doing, but also what some, you know, people do in the name of Jesus here in the United States.
MARTELI've just realized that it's an extraordinarily wealthy history, that of religion. And it's not only a grand history. It's also a very personal one. There's something that's interesting about religion, is that in any religion every one of us matters. You matter. Whereas the forces of science, the forces of democracy are actually often very indifferent to the individual. In religion, the individual always, always matters. And so that personal connection is very interesting.
MARTELAnd also, religions are just fascinating manifestations of our attempt to understand the bigger picture. It's very interesting comparing different religions and seeing what they bring. You know, the difference between, you know, the flavor, the feel of Islam, which is much been maligned these last decades 'cause of excesses that some people have done in its name, but, you know, the feel of Islam compared to that of Christianity, compared to that of Judaism or of Hinduism, it's extraordinarily interesting. It's really -- it's very stimulating.
GJELTENIn fact, I think Julie, calling from Florida, has a question about precisely that. Julie, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
JULIEHi. Thanks for having me. So, yeah, my…
JULIEI read the book when I was in 8th grade. And maybe it was because I fresh off of my own bat mitzvah, but I was so interested in the -- in Pi's quest to learn about the coexistence between Islam and Hinduism and Christianity. And I'm wondering what inspired your interest in exploring those three in particular?
JULIEIs it because you picked India as your backdrop or -- but, even if that's the case, why not Buddhism and sort of is -- was that your own personal choice to choose those three or did studying India bring you to that? And then also, it -- in some ways it's pretty unrelated from the rest of the plot of the book, so what inspired the decision to start off with that and have that as your introduction to a seemingly unrelated story of a boy in a boat?
MARTELThat's a great question. I chose the three religions that Pi practices for a number of very practical reasons. First of all, you're right, those are the main religions of India. Also, don't forget, I come from a very, very secular part of Canada. And so I was afraid that if he had practiced only one religion that it would give a feel of being an evangelical novel, whether it be for Hinduism, Islam or Christianity. And that was my intent.
MARTELMy intent wasn't to convince readers of anything. It was just to discuss things. So I didn't want him to be -- if he were Christian for example, in Canada certainly, a character says, Jesus says, basically frightens most people. They're not necessarily interesting in what Jesus has to say. And also, it wouldn't be representative of your average Indian. Christianity is practiced in only a minority of Indians. It's still about 30 million people, mind you, but it's a minority. Your average Indian is a Hindu. So he had to be a Hindu.
MARTELBut most people in the West know nothing about Hinduism. So that was a handicap. And then I also realized, finally, that my real interest was not in organized religion and its practice, but in -- what's at the key, what's at the heart of religion, which is faith. And all religions share an act of faith. Every religion asks you to stop making sense, stop being reasonable and make a leap of faith. And that's really what I wanted. And so I wanted to sort of relativize organized religion and go at what's at the heart of it. And that would therefore allow me to not have a character who would seem to be an extremist.
MARTELAnd it also allowed me to sort of compare and contrast the three. And why I chose three is just 'cause, well, the only religions that you can't real practice at the same time, not that they're inimical, but is Judaism and Christianity. You can't be waiting for the Messiah no Saturday and then celebrating on Sunday. Or you can, but only for one week. And then you have to choose whether you, it is the Messiah that you've met or whether you, you know, you still have to wait for him.
MARTELAnd all the other ones definitely aren't the same. I definitely don't put them in a blender. It's not a cafeteria pro to where you pick and choose. Pi very much practices each one. And it's what I was saying, you know, how each one very much has a different flavor. And it, you know, if you reduce Christianity to one word, it would be the word love. If you reduce Islam to one word, it would be unity. The sisterhood and brotherhood of Islam, it's a very tangible force in that religion. And Hinduism, God, I don't know. Hinduism is like a jungle of religion. It's so diverse.
MARTELBut anyway, I wanted each one there. And you said it's not related. Well, actually it is. It's the -- as I said earlier in the interview, it's not unrelated in the sense that the novel offers you a choice of perspectives. Remember, I said the investigators ask which is the better story? That, I would ask of the reader, too. When you look at your life, what is the better story? You can't just read it in a materialist way, that this is the result of just chance chemistry, our existence. That may very well be the case, but it could also possibly be the case that underpinning that material reality, there's something else.
MARTELI don't know what that is. And there's no proof for it. That's why it's called faith. It's not an act of reason. It is an act of faith. You can posit there's something else underpinning that. You do have that choice to see it. And then if you do posit that then becomes the quest of a lifetime to try to figure out what that is. And then there's a billion books out there, a billion gurus and rabbis who can talk to you, who can engage with you on that quest of trying to find what's underpinning our material reality. But it's a choice. You know, any religious act acts -- asks for you to exercise your free will to choose one reality, one reading of it over another.
GJELTENYeah, and Nate has a question in this same vein. Nate is on the line from Florida. Hello, Nate. You're on…
NATEHi. How you doing? Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to make a comment and ask a question. It's ironic that you were raised in a secular area of Canada and in a secular home and that you found faith later in life or at least that you kind of respect it now maybe more than you used to. I was raised Catholic and now I'm an atheist. I admire faith. I see how it empowers believers. And like you said, not necessarily religion, but just the act of faith.
NATEAnd my question kind of goes into how -- a comment that you made earlier was that there is so much evidence, as far as miracles and all the believers and the institutions. And I'm kind of wondering how you look at that as being evidence for people to make that leap?
MARTELNo. Sorry. I'm correcting, there's claims to evidence. Just claims to evidence.
NATEClaims to evidence, okay.
MARTELAs an atheist, of course, you would say, well, there is no evidence. It's just, you know, you'd deny that there are claims to evidence.
NATEWell, yeah, and I think that is the most important part of faith. There shouldn't be evidence, like you just said, it's that leap that you have to take. And I think that that's what's so empowering. It's kind of letting go of reality, in a sense, and kind of embodying what it means to be human. And even as an atheist I can respect that and understand that that plays a significant role in our lives. The…
MARTELYou're absolutely right that there's no proper claim to -- there's no proper evidence. That's one of the mistakes that modernity made. Remember in the, you know, the 17th century, when they started discovering reason. You had Descartes for example, who came up with these meditations in which some of them deal with proofs of God. They were trying to use this wonderful new tool called reason, called rationality, to prove the existence of God. Well, it doesn't work.
MARTELNone of the proofs of God that Descartes invented or summarized work. The very point of faith is that it cannot be reason-based. Otherwise, there wouldn't be any -- it would a self-evidence. Like, you don't deny gravity. You don't need faith in gravity. You just jump off a building and you know gravity exists. You can't get to any kind of divinity by that same process. It does involve a leap of faith, where you abandon the excessive use of rationality.
GJELTENSo, Yann, you're interested in faith, but you're also interested in the questioning of faith. And I'm thinking that this is maybe one of the reasons that you focus a lot on suffering. I think at one point you say, suffering makes you question things. And I noticed one of the pieces of scripture that you quote in your book is Psalms 22. "My God, my God, why hast though forsaken me?" Which is, and, you know, that's, of course, something that Jesus also said on the cross. And it's that -- it's kind of an expression of that moment of questioning faith, isn't it?
MARTELAbsolutely. Christianity is fascinating in that it's the only religion that pauses its negation. It's the only religion in which a God doubts of the great scheme. It's in Mark. And it's really interesting. It's unparalleled in other religions that -- and that's what's fascinating about the Jesus event, is the very humanity of the incarnation. In Hinduism you have Krishna, one of the avatars, who in many ways displays the same loving kindness of Jesus, the same mixing in with ordinary people, the same forgiveness, the same openness.
MARTELNonetheless, he's very clearly a god. He does not suffer in that same way. Or if he suffers, it's purely willingly and then he'll withdraw. And he certainly does not get crucified. There's a profound humanity. And that's why I think if you get beyond all the prejudices, and of course in America there's many, many heartfelt Christians, but if you strip away all -- everything else that's come afterwards and you look at the gospels, there's a profound poignancy. There's a genuine suffering in the life of Jesus that is extraordinarily touching and I think is why it was so effective.
MARTELAnd I should mention, by the way, I'm gonna slip this in really quickly. In part two, the doctor's wife makes a link between the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie…
GJELTENYann, can I just, can I -- briefly, just want to tell our readers that part two begins…
MARTELOh, yeah, sorry.
GJELTENYeah, well, you go ahead and do it. Just give us like a 20 second synopsis.
MARTELOh, it's a story. Yeah, it's a story of a pathologist who's working late at night in his hospital trying to catch up on work. And two women, one after the other come to see him, one of whom is his wife. And she announced, she arrives, announcing that she's got the solution. And he wasn't aware there was a problem. And she goes on to sort of this long exposition, which leads her to her theory about the similarity between the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie, of whom he is a great -- they are both great fans, and the life of Jesus.
MARTELAnd it's quite true. I think there's something startling about Agatha Christie. She's the world's most popular writer. In the history of the written word, there's no one who's ever been more popular than Agatha Christie. She has sold more books than anyone at all, not by a long shot has anyone come close as selling as much. And I always posit as to why Agatha Christie was so popular. And I think it's because she does, in a sense, and I'm saying this in no sense of sacrilege, she talks about death in a way that is palatable. All her murder mysteries are set within a moral framework.
MARTELShe talks about death. We rub shoulders with death, and yet, it's palatable. It's even an entertainment. And to me the defining murder mystery of civilization is the Jesus event 2,000 years ago, which was the same thing. Jesus made death palatable by resurrecting.
GJELTENOne second. One second, Yann. I just want to remind our listeners that this is "The Diane Rehm Show." Go ahead.
MARTELOh, sorry. Jesus 2,000 years ago did the same thing. He talked about death and made it palatable by resurrecting. And that resurrection of God, which is also unheard of in religion, I think is what so startled the imagination 2,000 years ago, and basically changed the course of civilization. I think it also explains the immense popularity of Agatha Christie, is that in some ways it's a way of digging deep into the meaning of life.
MARTELBecause as a -- one of the -- as she says, you know, all of us are the victims of a murder mystery, of a murder, our own. And before that we should try to elucidate, before that murder comes we should try to elucidate that murder. So there's a parallel in what Agatha Christies does -- did and what the Jesus event represented, that is quite startling and I think accounts for her immense popularity, which is, as I said, is unparalleled.
GJELTENWell, you're pretty popular yourself, Yann. Rob, from Alabama, is on the line. We're not gonna have a chance to go to him. But he says he really enjoyed reading "Life of Pi." He's never read a book that was so well written it almost flowed like song. "I literally chewed that book up." Another of your fans, Ellen, is on the line now, from Indiana. Hello, Ellen. Thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."
ELLENHello. Mr. Martel, I've enjoyed your books. And I agree also, your writing is fascinating. My question is always to authors, what do you like to read? I understand probably philosophy and religion books. Do you find yourself on car trips or on train trips reading other authors, nonfiction, fiction? What do you go to?
MARTELI tend to read fiction. And I'm not particularly up to speed on contemporary fiction. So what I'm reading right now is a classic I'd never read. I'm reading "The Iliad," by Homer in the fairly recent translation, a wonderful translation by Stephen Mitchell. And it's an extraordinary book. You know, we think of these dusty old classics as maybe even faintly dull and sort of an academic effort to read them. Not at all. Homer's "Iliad" starts, as they say, in medias res, in the middle of the story with Achilles being angry.
MARTELYou know, the first words of "The Iliad," is, "The rage of Achilles, oh, muse, tell me how did this rage come?" And again, it's a story of a really, really angry man and why he's angry and what happens as a result. And it's an extraordinary violent story. It's like "Game of Thrones," not quite as much sex, but it's like of "Game of Thrones," you know, thousands of years ago. But it's pulsing with life. It's so, so vivid. You can see why it's endured all this time. So that's what I'm reading right now. I'm reading "The Iliad."
GJELTENAnd, in fact, you got some press recently, Yann, for suggesting books to the prime minister of Canada. Tell us how that developed.
MARTELYeah, the prime minister in our country for 10 years was a man named Stephen Harper. And it came to light that he didn't read books. That he may have read in his teens, of course, but that basically once he got to his 20s -- and I think this is common of a certain kind of man, as opposed to women -- a man, who in his early 20's, stops reading fiction because it can't -- it's not real and therefore it's truth must be very relative. And so they stop reading fiction.
MARTELAnd maybe they start reading again when they get in their 60s and when they've pushed off -- they're being pushed off from their job and they have nothing to do and then they start reading again and discover what a wonderful thing it is. And he was one of these typical men who does not read. And that scares me. I don't care if the ordinary person doesn't read, but someone who has power over me, I do expect them to read because books are a source of dreams. And a politician, a head of state must, in addition to being a competent administrator, must be a dreamer. They must have dreams.
MARTELAnd I want to know those dreams 'cause they can become my nightmare. I don't know how one can know the human condition, except by reading or by traveling. Those are two ways of sort of opening yourself up. Books give you another life. You read a book, you are that character. A perfect example, one of the books I sent Stephen Harper, by a wonderful American writer, Toni Morrison, "The Bluest Eye." "The Bluest Eye" set in, you know, in Ohio, in the '50s, in a very dysfunctional family featuring a 12-year-old African-American girl.
MARTELThat's about as far from the white empowered male that is Stephen Harper, yet you read that book, you are that 12-year-old girl. You become that 12-year-old African-American girl, and therefore you get a little bit of that -- her wisdom, the wisdom of living that life. So if you don't read at all I don't know how you know the human condition, how you know the other. And in a democracy, you have to know the other. You're constantly dealing with the other and their demands. So…
GJELTENOkay. We're gonna have to…
MARTEL…I sent him these books for four years. Oh, sorry.
GJELTENNo. Well, Yann Martel is talking about the books that he sent to the prime minister of Canada. He, of course, is the author of "Life of Pi." We've been talking about his new book, "The High Mountains of Portugal." Thank you, Yann, so much for joining us. Been good to talk to you. Thanks to our listeners. I'm Tom Gjelten. This is "The Diane Rehm Show."
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