Yann Martel's The High Mountains of Portugal (Spiegel & Grau) is a novel that meditates on loss, mysticism, travel, and chimpanzees. Divided into three parts, it begins with "Homeless," the story of a Portuguese man in the 1900s named Tomás who embarks on a journey to find a religious artifact. In the second section, "Homeward," a Portuguese pathologist, Eusebio Lozora, attempts to solve a medical mystery in 1938. "Home," the third section, is set in the 1980s, and follows a Canadian senator named Peter Tovy as he leaves the comforts of his home for Oklahoma and then Portugal as he deals with his wife's death.
Travel + Leisure recently took the time to speak with Martel about his new book. He called me from his house in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and I could hear him boiling water for his afternoon tea. "It's the middle of nowhere for you," he told me. "If you look at Canada, it's the third province from the Pacific. There's British Columbia, where the mountains are, Alberta where the oil is, and then there's us, Saskatchewan, the rectangular province. There's a lot of potash and uranium and agriculture." Our interview had not yet begun, but like a true novelist, Martel had already articulated the peculiarities of place. We went onto to discuss the importance of travel, his research for the book, and why he'll never write about a road trip again.
In the book, two of the main characters, Tomás and Peter, travel as a way to deal with their grief. I was wondering about your thoughts on travel as a coping mechanism, and what seeing new places can do for the human psyche.
Travel does a lot of things. Travel, in some ways, is a means of escape. That's the case for Peter. His flees Ottawa, where his wife died. Their apartment has marks of her death all over it. Generally, I don't think travel is a good escape long-term. Demons tend to pursue you. But short term, it's a way of re-centering yourself.
For example, in that part of the novel, before going to Portugal, Peter goes to Oklahoma for a change of scenery, some refreshment. That's something travel is very good at. On a more positive note, travel tears you away from your mundane commitments. It allows you to take stock of things. You're not rushing to pay bills, take the kids to school. You suddenly have a lot of time. Because you're in a new territory, you tend to be more open. You're more open looking out, but therefore you can be more open looking in. Because you're seeing new things, it's quite thrilling. It can remind you how the world is a beautiful place, despite all the things you read in the newspaper and everything that's wrong.
It remains a stunning, thrilling place. You only really discover that if you travel. You can't get a sense of that if you just see it on a television screen. You have to see it physically.
I've always traveled. My parents were diplomats. They worked for the equivalent of the secretary of state in the US, the Canadian Foreign Service. As a child, we moved around, and then I kept traveling on my own. I'm not a travel writer, but I've always found travel extraordinarily stimulating.
Did the fact that you moved around impact your writing?
I think it influenced what I wrote. Life of Pi starts in India, and I've traveled in India. The High Mountains of Portugal is set in Portugal. Portugal is the first country I traveled on my own, as a 20-year-old, backpacking. That stayed with me.
It introduced me authors and literature of a particular country that I might not have known about. It made me more cosmopolitan.
Have you seen American Sniper? There's a scene at the beginning of the sniper watching television with his brother. There's an attack on an American interest. They're sort of grousing about that. At one point the American sniper says, "well, you know, the United States is the best country in the world." I was just thinking, because I could see how he was portrayed then, he had not only never traveled outside the United States, but I don't think he'd even traveled outside of Texas. It was ridiculous for him to say, "it's the best country in the world" if he's got nothing to compare it to.
What's great about travel is that it gives you things to compare your own experience with. You can tell where, relatively speaking, you are on the scale of happiness.
I've seen places like India, where you look at the statistics and think it's an appalling place. And it many ways it is an appalling place, compared to the United States or Canada. But in other ways, they're doing the right thing and in a sense we're not.
So travel allows you to compare and contrast your own life experience in a way that I think is very fruitful.
You novel includes detailed accounts of cities, specific locations, and streets. How do you approach writing about places, both imaginatively and accurately?
In the case of Lisbon, I went there. I'd been there before and my partner is English, so every year for Christmas we usually go to England to visit her family. The last two times we went there, I took the opportunity to go to Portugal. I researched Lisbon. I was there this time just for the sake of the novel. I was researching where the uncle's house might be. As it turns out, the house is the residence of the Chinese ambassador in Lapa. I decided that was the type of house I wanted.
They must have thought I was some sort of spy or something, because I hung around for a number of hours. Then I took the route you'd take to get out of Lisbon. I found old maps to show me where Lisbon ended at that time. I rented a car, the cheapest car I could. Not that I wanted to save money, but because I wanted a car lacking in power, as a car in 1904 would have compared to these cars. I putt-putted my way out of Lisbon and up to the northeast of Portugal, taking only roads that existed at that time. I avoided all the roads built by the EU since Portugal joined the European Union.
The very northeast, the high mountains of Portugal, are more mythologized. Trás-os-Montes, the province in question, which means "beyond the mountains" in Portuguese, I turned into the high mountains of Portugal. I've explored the area extensively, but I used them to serve my literary purpose.
There was a quote I loved in the second section—"every dead body is a book with a story to tell." Have any dead bodies in particular inspired you?
For that portion of the book, I was allowed to see two autopsies. There's this woman in that section who keeps saying, "I want so see how he lived, not how he died." She's trying to understand how her husband overcame the death of their son, while it killed her. The pathologist observes to himself that what the body has to say about its death says a lot about how that person lived. It's true. How someone lives will eventually dictate how they die. So someone who's sedentary and smokes, it's pretty obvious that one day they'll be obese and have lung cancer. The pathologist will be able to take note of that when he opens up the body.
What was so surprising when I saw the autopsies was the color contrast. Flesh is really red, like raw beef red, bright and darkish. Body fat is surprisingly yellow. Not jaundiced yellow, not canary yellow, but surprisingly yellow. The organs are quite bright. I divided my book into chapters, and each organ is like a chapter in your life. The pathologist goes along, chapter by chapter, figuring out what he needs to know.
I've always been interested in the relationship between the body and the surrounding world. My other books are also rooted in the body. Self is about a character who changes sex. He's traveling in Portugal and just metamorphosizes over night from a man into a woman. It's like a modern day Orlando. In the first book I wrote, a collection of short stories, a character gets AIDS, and there are a lot of medical details. The body is a vehicle of life. You can't have a good road trip if the car that is your body isn't running well.
The first section takes the form of a quest—a man sets off to find something in particular. In the second section, a doctor stays in his office, but finds something unexpected. In the third section, a man sets off on a journey not knowing why. I was wondering if these connected to your writing process. Did you begin writing with the end in mind? Were there unexpected turns that just appeared to you?
I always write knowing exactly where I'm going. Life of Pi is a good example of that. Before I wrote the first word, I knew exactly how the novel would end. I planned very carefully. Yet, the process of creation is always interesting. There are surprising turns that it takes.
Personally, I'm not very religious. But in this age where we're so driven to be reasonable, and we're bombarded with technology, I'm intrigued by the fact that these serious, educated people have this curious thing called "faith." Science and technology have been triumphing for 300 years. Why do people cling to something for which there's no empirical proof? Not for negative reasons. I'm not interested in religion being a force for homophobia or anti-Semitism, or sexism. It's this other side of it. It's these people using this whiff of magic to somehow guide their lives.
In this particular case, this novel started when I happened to casually observe that most editions of the gospel had little section headings. Even though the gospels aren't very long, and there are four of them, and some of the chapters are one small paragraph and the longest are no more that three, four paragraphs, nonetheless they have these little section headings. I wondered, looking at the headings, if I could use them to tell a modern story. Now, in the book, each of the three separate sections is one long chapter. Before, it wasn't like that at all. I had all kinds of short chapters with a title from the Gospel of Mark, the shortest and the oldest of the gospels. It was meant to be a sort of echo of what was happening. It drove my editors crazy. They said it was cumbersome, and that most people don't know anything about the gospels. I got rid of them.
Also, I'm never going to write a road trip again. Road trips are so hard to pull off. You can have movement in space without having any narrative movement. You get caught writing about the traveling, though that's not what's interesting. It's about what interrupts the traveling that is interesting.