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Author Yann Martel On 'That Deeply Unreasonable Phenomenon' Of Faith

Writer Yann Martel is best known for his 2001 book Life of Pi, about a teenage boy adrift at sea with a Bengal tiger. Now Martel has a new novel called The High Mountains of Portugal. It's made up of three interlocking stories that cover almost a century. Like Life of Pi, The High Mountains of Portugal is about journeys and it also features an animal (this time a chimpanzee).

Martel tells NPR's Ari Shapiro that his new novel continues an exploration of faith that began with Life of Pi.

"In both Life of Pi and in this one ... it happens to be religious faith," Martel says, "but I mean faith in a broader sense, too — any kind of faith, whether it's in a person, in a political movement, even a sports team, whatever. That deeply unreasonable phenomenon intrigues me. ... We are so moved to be rational. Faith, whether it's falling in love with someone or falling in love with a god, doesn't have that immediate cause and effect."

Interview Highlights

On why he uses animals in his stories

I find animals interesting in many ways. I use them in my writing more for technical reasons. They're marvelous vehicles, I find, for stories, because animals are what they are — a gnu, a wildebeest, a tiger, a chimpanzee — but they're also something we project a lot onto. We tend to project a lot onto wild animals. You know, tigers are beautiful; hyenas are cowardly; chimpanzees are clever — we project all of these human qualities onto them. So the animal is both itself and something else, a kind of canvas. And that's very useful for a writer to have a character that can be so mutable, so I just find them wonderful vehicles for telling my stories.

Yann Martel's other books include <em>Beatrice and Virgil</em> and <em>The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios</em>.
Emma Love / Courtesy of Spiegel & Grau
Courtesy of Spiegel & Grau
Yann Martel's other books include Beatrice and Virgil and The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios.

And I also happen to be interested in animals. You know, we share the planet with them and they have, some of them, very curious habits, some of which mirror us in some ways and some of which radically don't.

On why he chose to focus his book on a particular region of Portugal

There is a province, a region, of the northeast of Portugal called Trás-os-Montes, which means beyond the mountains, beyond or behind the mountains. And it's very curious because there are no mountains. ...

It made me think that [what] we call places — toponymy, the naming of places — is a kind of storytelling. We name places to start creating a story of why we're there. You know, a very obvious example: the United States of America. America is a continent; the United States is a statement about unity of different people, but they're united. In naming a place, we're saying something about who we are and why we are. So the high mountains, even though there are no mountains, in my mind, it's a sort of a rarified, mythical place where we all have to go if we want to let go — to be home, in a sense.

On the character Tomás, who has lost family members to diphtheria and copes by walking backwards everywhere

I've always been interested in grief and loss — not because I've suffered any, but through art. I've always been struck by grief, not just in its emotive impact — like when you're grieving, you cry — but beyond that, what do you do with it? The day after, the week after, the month after the loss when it's starting to become normal — what do you do with that grief? Where do you go from there? ...

Either life means something or it doesn't. Because life is about making choices, so either you throw yourself at it and believe there is something ... or you don't and say there's nothing.

[Tomás] turns his back not only to the world that didn't help him — but what could the world do? — but also to God. It's an act of rebellion; an act of remembrance for him. It marks that he's objecting. That's what [he] says to his uncle in the novel. He says, "I'm not necessarily grieving when I do that, I'm objecting. This happened to me. It shouldn't have happened, therefore I'm going to object and I'm going to turn my back to the world." And so, yeah, he walks [backwards] wherever he goes.

On this quote from the book and how it reflects his own thoughts about faith: "[Tomás] realized that this matter of faith was either radically to be taken seriously or radically not to be taken seriously."

Most people are not radical either way. They just sort of sit in this middle on this fence most of their lives. And I think important matters like religion — you have to decide one way or the other ... because it makes a big difference. Either there's nothing — we're just the result of chemical good luck, you know, this soup on Earth that yielded life somehow mysteriously. And that's fine, and you just deal with that — that life is a lucky, short-lived thing. Or it does somehow mean something. And if it does, then what does it mean? ...

I'm not at all a defender of organized religion or any kind of evangelism, but I'm just saying either life means something or it doesn't. Because life is about making choices, so either you throw yourself at it and believe there is something — then what is there? — or you don't and say there's nothing and so we just have to make life good right now.

On the importance of stories

I believe that we are nothing without the stories that we read and that we tell ourselves. I think in a large part, our identity as human beings is the result of narration, of constructing things that have a beginning, a middle and an end, that have development. I've always been struck how religions, unlike science, religion is profoundly narrative. All religions convey stories and I think that speaks to who we are as a species. Our understanding comes through stories, [is] exemplified through stories, [is] understood through stories.

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