Interview with Yann Martel

Posted by Goodreads on February 1, 2016
Yann Martel Yann Martel, author of the mega-bestseller Life of Pi, returns with another labyrinthine novel, The High Mountains of Portugal. Martel, who trades in symbols, allegory, and mysterious allusions to truth, creates a story in High Mountains that spans continents and generations. The author tells a tale of grief and faith through three separate stories of differing styles: a treasure quest through Portugal in the early 1900s, the magically realist story of a pathologist conducting an autopsy in the middle of the night, and finally the contemporary tale of a Canadian politician. Martel's work in The High Mountains of Portugal reflects his signature wit and depth.

The author spoke with Heather Scott Partington recently about grief, the symbolism of stories, and the inspiration for his latest work.


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Goodreads: One of the most intriguing things in The High Mountains of Portugal is the habit of Tomás, and later other characters, to walk backward following the death of a loved one. You write that for Tomás, this is a personal objection—to God—and that later it became a tradition of the villagers of Tuizelo. Do you think grief is intensely private, or is there value in traditions that unite us in our grief?

Yann Martel: Grief is an appallingly solitary experience. What rips one person open may well be something that others merely glance at in a newspaper and feel nothing for. We shield ourselves against pain, we're very adept at moving on when it comes to the pain of others—it's a natural defense mechanism—until pain hits us in the middle of the chest like a well-thrown spear. Then you stagger and can't imagine going on. So yes, any tradition that helps lighten grief has value, although I suspect it's never enough. There's no trick that can make pain go away entirely. Time is a soother, of course, but time is also the great eroder. Time makes everything go away, pain and grief, but also life itself. I think what helps with grief is a belief system that places it in a greater context, that invests it with meaning. Because that's the killing part, otherwise, the meaninglessness of grief. And so Tomás walks backward, a reaction as absurd as the grief he has to endure.


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GR: Are the High Mountains of Portugal your ideal setting because they are, by name, an exaggeration? "An act of national vanity"? The setting in your novel echoes some of the ideas about truth, storytelling, and expectation. Can you talk about the importance of names as they relate to our interpretation? How did you think about the names in the story as you were writing?

YM: The High Mountains of Portugal have no mountains, as various characters in the novel discover. And yet these characters have aspirations, they wish to climb mountains. And they do. Tomás wants to climb a mountain to conquer it, out of pride, hurt, mournful madness. Peter quite contentedly lives on a mountain, in a state of blessed detachment. Dr. Lozora has faith that there are mountains. The High Mountains in my novel is a place of heightened being; they are mountains in the mind.

Other names in the novel are also the result of careful mulling on my part, not that readers will necessarily see that. Peter Tovy because Peter was a disciple of Jesus, and Tovy is a Jewish Portuguese name, as is Lozora. Tomás because an older Thomas expressed doubts about Jesus. And so on.

GR: In Part II of The High Mountains, Eusebio listens to his wife defend the parable. She says, "A parable is an allegory in the form of a simple story. It is a suitcase that we must open and unpack to see its contents. And the single key that unlocks these suitcases, that opens them wide, is allegory." But Eusebio wonders, "Why would truth use tools of fiction? Why would he both tell stories and let himself be presented in stories? Stories full of metaphors are by writers who play the language like a mandolin for our entertainment..." As you're writing, how aware are you of contemporary readers' receptiveness to allegory? Does it matter?


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YM: On some level all literature operates on a symbolic level—language itself is symbolic—but as for strict allegory, I don't know what today's tastes are, but I do believe readers are always open to something that moves them and makes them think, and allegory can do that as well as any other mode. Personally I love allegory. The Divine Comedy is one of my favorite works of literature. To me, allegory is the opposite of literal, and who wants literal?

GR: What makes an allegorical story work? I think people are probably more open to allegory than they realize. I can think of examples in music, art, politics, and even clickbait memes. But I also think that once a story is labeled as an allegory, it makes readers fear that they might not "get it" or that their own interpretation might be wrong. Does a parable have to be simple in order to still be a parable? Do you think of using parable and allegory in order to complicate or, put another way, to open literature up to different interpretations rather than to make meaning plain?

YM: A parable, an allegory starts to work once a reader is on board, agrees to go along with it. That doesn't mean that it's simple. The parables of Jesus, for example, have the appearance of simplicity, but they contain a whole suitcase full of meaning. Parables arose from a tradition that was mostly oral; they had to convey a wealth of meaning in a few strokes. They are succinct but not simple. However, they do require a degree of prior knowledge with which one can decode them. Dante's Divine Comedy is nearly incomprehensible without a degree of knowledge about Italian history and Catholicism (thank god for all those footnotes and explanations). So in today's world, where canons have been thrown out the window and we celebrate multiplicity and diversity, allegory and parables are a riskier venture. But who doesn't like a puzzle? Who doesn't like to be made to work?

GR: How did the idea for The High Mountains of Portugal come to you? One of the things I love about it is how it makes many of the same points over generations, but in very different scenarios. Was the novel initially conceived as these three very different parts, or did it evolve into that? Can you talk about what ideas excited you as you became immersed in this work?


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YM: I started writing a novel when I was at university. It featured a crucifix, a quest, an animal (a talking dog), a setting in Portugal. But I was too young, too unlearned in the craft of writing to know how to pull it off. The patient died on the operating table, so to speak. I moved on. Twenty-five years later, I started writing THMOP, and something of that early novel showed itself, in an archaeological way. But new elements came into play, too. The automobile, the Agatha Christie murder mysteries, the autopsy, and so on. I don't know if I'm any more learned in the craft of writing—I still feel like an apprentice foolishly playing with powerful magic potions—but this second time round the novel came together. What got me going was a casual observation I made one day: how in most editions of the Gospels there are chapter headings. Despite the accounts of the life of Jesus being quite short, despite some episodes of it being recounted in one sentence and most often in just one or two paragraphs, nonetheless there are all these chapter headings. It occurred to me that they provided a summary of the life of Jesus, and that life, whether one believes in Jesus or not, in many ways resembles the life of all of us: We are born, we grow up, we try our best, we die. I wondered to myself if I could write a novel using these chapter headings. What kind of life would my characters live if they existed in rough parallel to the events in Jesus's life? Quickly the narrative broke into three distinct parts. I can't remember when that happened exactly. It just did. Three—a symbolic number. And each part of the novel took on its own nature in an organic way. I did my usual research, on early automobiles, on the slave trade, on Agatha Christie, on chimpanzees, etc. This research gave me new ideas and new avenues of research. In the end, I eliminated the chapter headings, but the novel was there.

GR: Part II begins with Eusebio repeating "The Body of Christ" to himself, and then he later says that his work as a pathologist has taught him that "[e]very dead body is a book with a story to tell, each organ a chapter, the chapters united by a common narrative." How is the idea of interpretation important in our time? Is there a case to be made for trusting our own interpretations more, or is it just a human thing to look for proof?

YM: In some areas of life, personal interpretations are of secondary consideration. The law, for example. Few people would consider it acceptable to take the law into one's own hands. The law is the law, and if you don't agree with it, tough. Write to your member of Congress, get a petition going, etc. But you can't just ignore it because that's how you feel about it. However, in areas of life that are more personal, less social, personal interpretation is everything. How one leads one's life, what it's all about, who am I, why am I, etc.—with these sorts of questions there are certainly external agents who will be willing to guide us, but ultimately the individual has to decide. That's one thing that has always struck me about the religious perspective—and I say this whether one cares for religion or not—is that it is inherently personal. To God—whatever god—you matter, your unique individuality matters. To use the terms coined by Martin Buber, religion is all about I-Thou relationships. In such a relationship, personal interpretation is everything. As it is with reading. There's no law that says you must interpret a book one way or another. I very much believe in readers interpreting my books in the way they want, without fear of being right or wrong. There is no right or wrong. There is only what sits well and what doesn't.

GR: Your stories ask readers to be open to multiple plausible plotlines. Yet at the same time, The High Mountains of Portugal offers many points of connection within the narrative that reassure us that even though we are in completely different phases of the story, we remain in the same universe. How important is it for you to balance the tension in your narrative between the unknown and known?

YM: That balance is essential—and involves much guesswork. As the writer, you neither want to over-explain—making everything known and uninteresting to the reader—nor under-explain, leaving the reader baffled. A story works when it involves the reader, when the reader starts to take the words on the page and construct something with his or her imagination. In that sense, a book is a half thing that is completed when the reader brings his or her half. And that involvement on the reader's part starts with the text having a degree of mystery to it.

GR: Goodreads member Steffannie asks, "To what degree do you believe authorial intent determines how a work should be interpreted?"

YM: I touched on this in my answer to the previous question. Authorial intent is very quickly taken over by reader response. A reader may well see something in a work that the author never intended. That means that there are now two novels: the one the author intended and now the one this particular reader created in his or her mind. And this process continues until there are as many novels as there are readers. This potential for a single book to become a whole library, the incredible interpretative fertility of the imagination, is exactly what draws people to books, because they can become involved in the text, they can cocreate it. In the multiplicity of interpretations I think authorial intent should not be entirely forgotten, but nor should it become a tightly monitored gate through which a reader must pass. And that is aside from the valid question of whether an author actually knows his or her intent fully. There is an element of spontaneity, a let-rip freedom to artistic creation that cannot be boxed in by intent, neither by the author nor by the reader.


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GR: Another Goodreads member, Caleb, asks, "[W]hen it comes to the craft of writing itself, what were some of the works of literature you looked to as mentors?"

YM: Lots. Much of the usual suspects of the late 19th century, early 20th-century Anglo-American canon, all those dead white men (and a number of dead white women—Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Zora Neale Hurston (wait, she's not white)) who wrote amazing books. Some Japanese writers startled me (Mishima, Kawabata), as did the Russians (Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Turgenev, etc.). Knut Hamsun, the disgraced Norwegian Nobel laureate from the early 20th century, marked me. As did the Divine Comedy, as I mentioned earlier, which remains the single most impressive text I've ever read. My favorite living writer is J.M. Coetzee, who does so much with so little. Etc. An eclectic lot.

GR: Goodreads member Erika wonders, "In this current age of global climate change, poverty, wars, and economic meltdowns, is it still relevant to the human population to be a fiction writer? Why?"

YM: We tend to think that our age is the most apocalyptic of all. But imagine living in a shtetl in Eastern Europe in the late 1930s. Or during the First World War, amidst that unprecedented butchery. Or during the Black Death, when one-third of Europe's population died. Or in any number of places around the world assaulted by colonialism. The world is always ending, and every time there's a storyteller bearing witness. And if there isn't, then that world doesn't end, it's worse than that: It simply disappears. A place and a time that is not expressed in stories mostly vanishes from human consciousness. So yes, I do believe stories and their creators are still relevant.


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GR: What are you reading now?

YM: A great classic I'd never read until now: The Iliad, in the translation by Stephen Mitchell. It's an extraordinary text. It's fantastically violent, yet keenly felt, the storytelling is riveting, and the perspective on life—how we are at the mercy of random chance (or, as they called it then, at the mercy of the gods)—is chillingly modern.



Interview by Heather Scott Partington for Goodreads. Heather is a writer, teacher, and book critic. She lives in Elk Grove, California.

Learn more about Heather and follow what she's reading.

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Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

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message 1: by Jerry (new)

Jerry Miller I fell in love with LIFE OF PI. Disclosure: WASP born 7-7-36 Cedar Rapids. I gave it as gifts. I was delighted to see YM listing Kawabata and Mishima with the 'usual suspects' - they were awesome. For some reason I have not seen THMOP and I'm glad to have read this commentary-interview. Although I subscribe to National Geographic, took Geo class in college, I would have guessed those 'high mountains' were the dividing line from Spain, as the Pyrenees are with France. I will get and read THMOP soon!


message 2: by Bill (new)

Bill Katz I thought it bears mentioning, but on second thought, perhaps it has no place in this dialogue, that occasionally when a writer incorporates animals in the story line, and if the novel is sold to a Hollywood producer and ultimately made into a movie as happened with "Life of Pi," often the animal in the movie is tortured into performing as happened with the tigers in the movie. Something that we often put out of mind until someone exposes it.

I am always fearful, as an animal rights advocate, when such creatures are featured in a movie. The end result is often that it creates a demand to purchase the animal as a pet. A good example although not a movie example, was Michael Jackson's odd chimpanzee companion. This created such a demand for chimp pets until the chimp became an adult with aggressive adult behavior. This in turn, requires the animal to be placed in a zoo or worse, killed.

Such is the lifestyle of the human animal.


message 3: by Sallieusesay (new)

Sallieusesay with all this question why always reject my comment


আশরাফুল  কবীর Nice interview!!


message 5: by Johana (new)

Johana Koech It's a good one


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