Author of Life of Pi visits Ottawa to promote new novel The High Mountains of Portugal

What do Christianity, 1920s mystery novels, and chimpanzees have in common? They are all features of Yann Martel’s new novel The High Mountains of Portugal, which he visited Ottawa to discuss with CBC’s Alan Neal on Feb. 5.

The Booker Prize-winning author was a featured guest at the special event hosted by the Ottawa International Writer’s Festival. Charismatic and humorous, he led the audience through insightful dialogue spanning topics from religion and philosophy to language and authorship while promoting his new book.

Regarding The High Mountains of Portugal, Martel says that “death is the starting premise of each section.”

Instead of exploring the deaths themselves, he takes the reader into the psyche of the main characters as they grieve in the aftermath of death.

The book is separated into three parts featuring characters living in different decades of the 20th century, with their narratives interweaving despite the vast gulf of time and space.

The first depicts a grieving man taking a road trip to uncover a religious relic, the second features a pathologist who conducts an autopsy and discusses similarities between the gospels and Agatha Christie novels with his wife, and the third portrays a Canadian senator living with a chimpanzee in northern Portugal.

Despite growing up “detesting organized religion,” Martel now considers himself a religious man, and often explores the topic in his novels. He has examined a variety of religious traditions, but said he believes that Christianity is one of the few religions that hasn’t been explored through humour.

Aiming to marry humour with the exploration of death, he wanted to make his novel as “palatable” as Agatha Christie’s murder-mystery novels. He greatly admired Christie because she “gets us to think about death in a palatable way.”

Especially intrigued with the Jesus narrative, he considers it as “the defining murder mystery” as the point of the Jesus story was not who killed him, but the fact that Jesus died for humanity. His death and eventual resurrection made the story palatable, which, he explained, is why it has stood the test of time so well.

Martel, in fact, used the Gospel of Mark as the backbone to his novel and wrote his allegories to parallel the gospel.

While some authors shy away from discussing their most successful work while promoting their latest literary output, Martel embraces Life of Pi and continually incorporated it into the talk, especially when discussing his use of animals in his allegories and themes of religion. Similar to Life of Pi, The High Mountains of Portugal prominently features an animal, this time a chimpanzee. “Trying to be in the present moment is why I use animals in my stories,” says Martel.

“There’s an animal-like quality in Jesus in being in the present moment, and a divine quality in animals in also being in the present moment.”

“We’re always dwelling on the past and worried about the future. We have a huge difficulty in just being here… The senator is learning from the chimpanzee. He’s learning the ability to be right here, right now.”

Martel also touched on his writing process, saying that he thinks through and plans his whole novel before starting to write anything. He also said that after finishing a book, he feels as if he’s “edited it to death,” something many writers can surely relate to.

Although Martel may feel as if his novels are edited to death, this process has clearly worked for past novels like Life of Pi, and will hopefully ensure The High Mountains of Portugal and future novels see similar success.

The High Mountains of Portugal is now available for purchase at all major bookstores and online.

—With files from Feodor P-S.