Yann Martel uses apes as symbolic vehicle in new novel

TORONTO -- Fifteen years after publishing the smash boy-tiger shipwreck tale "Life of Pi," Saskatoon author Yann Martel is exploring the notion of faith and reason once again with his new novel, "The High Mountains of Portugal.

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And, like "Life of Pi" and Martel's 2010 Holocaust-themed novel "Beatrice & Virgil," he's using animals in an allegorical way.

In this case, the great symbolic vehicle is the chimpanzee, which appears in different incarnations in the story that offers up magical realism as it also looks at love, sorrow and suffering.

"In this one I chose chimpanzees because I wanted a great ape. I wanted something close to us," said Martel. "Apes, the great apes, especially gorillas and chimpanzees and bonobos, remarkably reflect us. There's clearly a divide. Our intelligence, for example.

"But nonetheless they are like a smoky, warped mirror of who we are, in an earlier form. We are linked."

"The High Mountains of Portugal" is divided into three parts -- "Homeless," "Homeward" and "Home" -- that come together at the end.

First we meet a Portuguese curator who is grieving the loss of his wife, child and father as he travels to the mountains in 1904. He drives a newfangled automobile as he searches for an artifact described in the diary of a priest who observed the slave trade.

Then there's the deeply religious Portuguese pathologist who performs an autopsy on the body of a woman's husband -- not to determine how he died but how he lived.

The third section features a Canadian widower who becomes infatuated with an ape at a chimpanzee sanctuary and brings the animal with him to his new home in Portugal.

Martel said he grew up in a secular household and didn't become interested in religion until he was older and visited India, where he saw the positive in making a leap of faith in such a pragmatic society. He ended up writing "Life of Pi" there.

"I suddenly saw an equivalency between art and religion, that the two ask you to go beyond what you think you know, so I started becoming interested in that," Martel said in an interview at the offices of Penguin Random House Canada.

"'Life of Pi' is a reflection of that ongoing interest and so is this one."

Portugal appears in all of Martel's novels. In this case, he felt it fit with the broad allegory on the life of Jesus: Portugal is on the edges of Europe, and Jesus grew up in Palestine, which was on the periphery of the Roman Empire.

The father of four won the 2002 Man Booker Prize for Fiction for "Life of Pi," a global bestseller that went on to become an Oscar-winning film by Ang Lee.

He equated that success to being "like a freak storm hitting Toronto; you presume it won't happen again."

"I presume it won't happen again on that scale," said Martel, "but that doesn't matter because, really, the success of a book starts with the success in my head."

Even "Beatrice & Virgil," which divided critics with its allegorical look at the Holocaust through the eyes of a taxidermy monkey and a donkey, was a success in his eyes.

"Some people HATED it, tore it to shreds," said Martel. "In my mind, it's a successful book. I spent six years on that book and for six years I was happy with it, and I will still see it and say, 'Yeah, that's what I was trying to do.'

"It is a dialogue and I'm still in dialogue with all of my books, and I love them equally like my children," he added. "So it was a success in my head and how the world deals with it is their affair.

"So I really don't feel any pressure. I hope this one does well. If it doesn't, oh well, I'll just go on, so long as people just read it."


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