Before Beatrice and Virgil divided critics, before recommending 101 books to the former prime minister of Canada, before Life of Pi sold more than 12 million copies around the world and was made into a movie subsequently nominated for 11 Academy Awards, before he'd won the English-language's most prestigious fiction prize, before he was a husband and a father, before he moved to the Prairies, before he'd published a single short story, let alone a single book, Yann Martel began writing a novel set in Portugal.
It was, because this is Yann Martel we're talking about here, narrated by a dog.
"There are elements of the novel that have been in my head since I was at university, close to 30 years now," he says. "I just didn't know how to tell the story."
In the author's note that prefaces Life of Pi, his Man Booker Prize-winning novel about a 16-year-old boy lost at sea with a man-eating tiger for company, the narrator (an author who, like Martel at the time, had just published a second book that "didn't fare well") references "a novel set in Portugal in 1939" that ultimately "sputtered, coughed and died." The narrator sends the pages of his failed masterpiece to "a fictitious address in Siberia, with a return address, equally fictitious, in Bolivia."
Though the author's note was fictitious, in reality Martel really was working on a novel set in Portugal in 1939 that ultimately sputtered, coughed and died. He sent the notes of that stillborn novel to Montreal, his home at the time. Now, decades later, he has undertaken an act of literary resurrection and salvaged some of his earliest creative material, transforming the abandoned novel into The High Mountains of Portugal, a wonderfully inventive, 20th-century-spanning odyssey that contains some of the finest writing of Martel's career. (The dog, alas, is gone.) Still, it's highly unlikely Martel's fourth novel, which will be published next week, will sell anywhere close to 12 million copies. At 52, mid-career and middle-aged, Martel is entering what will probably be the most interesting stage of his writing life.
So how does a writer remain motivated when his most successful book is already on bookshelves around the world? It's a question few authors are fortunate enough to contemplate.
"There are always going to be readers who will look at Life of Pi and think, 'Why can't he do that over again?' " says his literary agent Jackie Kaiser. "But he's a much more interesting writer than that – to go back and retread the same territory."
A novel in three parts, The High Mountains of Portugal begins in Lisbon during the last days of 1904. A young man named Tomas, mourning the death of his wife and child, embarks on a quest to find a crucifix, whose existence "would do nothing less than turn Christianity upside down," that he believes was hidden away in a small Portuguese village by a missionary who discovered the artifact in Africa. In the second section, Eusebio Lozora, a pathologist working late on New Year's Eve, 1938, is visited by his wife, for a lengthy discussion about the links between Agatha Christie and the gospels, and then by an elderly woman who asks him to perform an autopsy on her recently deceased husband – not to discover how he died, but to learn how he lived. Finally, the novel concludes with the story of Peter Tovy, a Canadian senator who, after the death of his wife, moves back to the remote Portuguese village where he was born, accompanied by – again, this is Martel we're talking about – a chimpanzee named Odo.
The High Mountains of Portugal does retread some of the same territory of his previous works. It is, like Life of Pi, a book about faith; between this and the link to the author's note, it feels like a spiritual sequel, of sorts, to his much-loved novel.
"I'm not a particularly religious person but, since Life of Pi, I've been interested by the phenomenon of faith," says Martel over the phone from Saskatoon, where he has lived since 2003 with his wife, the writer Alice Kuipers, and their four children. "It's so contrary to the ethos of the times which, in the West, is largely a rational, technological ethos. Just to be contrarian, I'm intrigued by this element of faith. Not to ridicule it, not to belittle it – although there are certain elements that need to be ridiculed and criticized. I'm still intrigued by the positive [elements]. Not everyone has some sort of religious faith because they're homophobic and out to put women in the kitchen and stuff like that. It's just a different view of the cosmos.
"Who's to say what the ultimate answer is? Maybe on your deathbed you do see a white light and it's God at the end."
As much as it is a study of faith, The High Mountains of Portugal is equally an attempt to understand suffering, and how we respond when facing the tragedies that inevitably arise during a lifetime. It is, as his long-time editor Louise Dennys says, a novel "about how we cope with love and how we cope with loss." Martel says he "wanted to see what does suffering do to someone in relation to how they relate to the universe. What do you do when you've suffered? Obviously, your first reaction is just emotive – you cry. But then beyond that what do you do? How do you understand your suffering in relation to the bigger picture?"
Then again, he points out, this is a common refrain in his fiction.
"Even my first stories – like The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, about two students, one of whom has AIDS – I've always found [my] stories tend to start with a moment of disquiet, of discomfort, with the universe," he says. "Very happy people don't really have stories to tell. I think stories often arise from a moment, an element, of suffering. Because suffering makes you question things. And in questioning things you start analyzing, looking deeper, and it's the start of something changing. For perfectly happy people, to a certain extent, there's a degree of complacency: 'Things are good so why should I rock the boat? Why should I question things?'
"I ask those questions, I'm interested in them, and I live with them."
If very happy people don't have stories to tell, as he suggests, does that mean he was unhappy while writing his latest novel? Not at all, he replies.
"I write about these things in books, in a sense, like a vaccination – to try and innoculate myself against it," he says. Yet, at the same time, he knows such tragedy is inevitable. "I'm 52, I'm totally healthy, I exercise, I'm happy, I'm unstressed, and yet I am fully aware that illusion is slowly going to crumble. And you read that every time you read any sort of religious text – it's like any time you read a newspaper, frankly – and I'm attuned to that. Maybe that's having studied philosophy in university."
It was during university that Martel visited Portugal for the first time. His parents were living in Madrid at the time (his father was a Canadian diplomat) and, one summer, he flew to Lisbon and explored the country before heading on to Spain. He's returned several times over the years, including multiple research trips during the writing of this novel. He's "mythologized" the country, using locations both real and imagined.
"Tomas's uncle's house in Lisbon is in fact the Chinese embassy," he says. "I hung around a long time taking pictures. I'm surprised guards didn't come out and try and arrest me."
Martel seems relaxed, cracking jokes, apparently unworried about the novel's imminent release – worth noting considering the critical reception that greeted 2010's Beatrice and Virgil. It was, to be fair, a no-win situation; how do you follow up the most successful Canadian novel of all time, as Life of Pi has been branded by his publisher? While Beatrice and Virgil, an allegory of the Holocaust featuring a taxidermist, a novelist, a donkey and a monkey, garnered many positive reviews – including from this newspaper – it was torn apart in numerous high-profile outlets.
"I don't think he has to prove himself all over again," Kaiser says, noting The High Mountains of Portugal has been sold in 21 territories. "I don't think that unnerved him in any way, or unnerved his publishers or caused him to change how he works, in the least."
Dennys says: "Each book is very much its own unique literary creation. So I hope, and I think he probably hopes, it will be judged on that basis and not against either Beatrice and Virgil, on one level, or Life of Pi, on another level. It will be judged [for] what it is."
Although Martel acknowledges Life of Pi will be the novel he's remembered for – he still regularly receives letters from readers – he points out it's been 15 years since the novel was published: "It's the book that keeps on selling – I'm not the book, I'm just the writer."
As far as writing another book as popular as Life of Pi, he's indifferent.
"You don't write for commercial success," he says. "I'm sure even Stephen King or John Grisham would say that. It's not a question of 'I hope this sells 12 million copies.' Frankly, first of all, I don't need the money any more. I made plenty of money with Life of Pi. So I'm not motivated by more money. What would I do with it? The other thing is each book is its own universe, with its own challenges. So it was wonderful working on Life of Pi – I loved it – but I also loved working on Beatrice and Virgil. It did far less well than Life of Pi – not only in sales, obviously, but critically. Some people hated it! I just read a review of High Mountains that the guy [Ron Charles] from the Washington Post liked, and he called Beatrice and Virgil 'cringe-inducing.' He may say that, and he's entitled to that, and that doesn't bother me at all, but I loved working on it, and I could go on for 10 hours talking about what I was trying to do with Beatrice and Virgil. Each novel, each work, becomes something that totally captivates you. And you forget the other stuff. It's like my children. Do I have one child among my four that I prefer? No! Whether they're successful or not, I love them all. Same thing with my books."
His children, on the other hand, like many of his readers, might not feel the same way.
"I'm a one-hit wonder. I'm Life of Pi to them. There's nothing else."