AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Writer Yann Martel is best known for his book "Life Of Pi" - you know, the one about a teenage boy adrift at sea with a tiger. Martel's new book, "The High Mountains Of Portugal," is also about journeys - three of them, all men living in different eras who are searching for a sense of home. Our co-host Ari Shapiro sat down with Martel to discuss the novel.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The first man we meet is Tomas in 1904. And he is grieving over the loss of members of his family to diphtheria. And he copes with it by walking backwards everywhere he goes. Where did that concept come from?
YANN MARTEL: Oh, I don't know, some little corner of my imagination. I just thought what would be...
MARTEL: I mean, I've always been interested in grief and loss, not 'cause I've suffered any, but through art. I've always been struck by grief, not in just its emotive impact - like when you're grieving, you cry - but beyond that. What do you do with it? The day after, the week after, the month after the loss when you - it's starting to become normal, what do you do with that grief? Where do you go from there?
SHAPIRO: Well, the thing about the guy walking backwards, this character walking backwards, is that wherever he goes, whether they perceive it as grief or not, everyone who sees him can see this thing that makes him different from everyone else.
MARTEL: Exactly, and he does it for many reasons. He turns his back not only to the world that didn't help him - but what could the world do - but also to God. It's an act of rebellion, an act of remembrance for him. It marks that he's objecting. That's what he says in the - you know, to his uncle in the novel. He says I'm not necessarily grieving when I do that. I'm objecting. This happened to me. It shouldn't have happened. Therefore, I'm going to object and I'm going to turn my world - my back to the world. And so, yeah, he walks backward wherever he goes.
SHAPIRO: There is a line almost at the very beginning of the novel where this character Tomas realizes - and the line is (reading) that this matter of faith was either radically to be taken seriously or radically not to be taken seriously.
Do you share that belief? I can't tell whether you're taking it radically seriously or radically not seriously in this book?
MARTEL: I do take that seriously in the sense that I studied philosophy at university, an, generally, religion gets torn apart in philosophy classes, which is a very good exercise in using your rationality. But I slowly came to realize that most people are not radical either way. They just sort of sit in this middle, on this fence, most of their lives. And I think important matters like religion - you have to decide one way or the other radically because it makes a big difference.
Either there's nothing, which is the result of chemical good luck, you know, this soup on Earth that yielded life somehow mysteriously, and that's fine. And you just deal with that, that life is a lucky, short-lived thing. Or it does somehow mean something, and if it does, then what does it mean? It doesn't mean you have to follow some particular denomination. I'm not at all a defender of organized religion or any kind of evangelism. But I'm just saying either life means something or it doesn't because life is about making choices. So either you throw yourself at it and believe there is something, then what is there? Or you don't, and you say there's nothing and so we just have to make life good right now.
SHAPIRO: This novel is made of three interlocking stories. It covers almost a century. And the one thing that these three stories have in common is the high mountains of Portugal, the place. Why did you choose this place as the focal point for your novel?
MARTEL: Well, there is a province, a region of the northeast of Portugal called Tras-os-Montes, which means beyond the mountains - beyond or behind the mountains. And it's very curious because there are no mountains. That's - two of my characters in the novel point out it's funny. It's a place called the high mountains, but there are no mountains. That intrigued me and struck me because when we call places - when we - toponomy, the naming of places, is a kind of storytelling.
We name places to start creating a story of why we're there. You know, a very obvious example - the United States of America. America's a continent. The United States is a statement about, you know, unity of different people but they're united. In naming a place, we're saying something about who we are and why we are. So the high mountains, even though there are no mountains, in my mind, it's a sort of a rarified mythical place where we all have to go if we want to let go - to be home, in a sense.
SHAPIRO: Many of the characters in this story are writers. There's a priest who keeps a diary, a doctor who writes autopsy reports. And in this novel, you explore the idea of what it means to read and write a story. Will you read an excerpt from the book?
MARTEL: (Reading) A story is a wedding in which we listeners are the grooms watching the bride coming up the aisle. It is together, in an act of imaginary consummation, that the story is born. This act wholly involves us, as any marriage would, and just as no marriage is exactly the same as another, so each of us interprets a story differently, feels for it differently. A story calls upon us as God calls upon us as individuals - and we like that. Stories benefit the human mind.
SHAPIRO: Is this how you feel about the act of reading and writing? And this is a character speaking, not you. Do you agree with the character?
MARTEL: I agree with the importance of stories. I believe that we are nothing without the stories that we read and that we tell ourselves. I think in a large part our identity as human beings is the result of narration, of constructing things that have a beginning, a middle and an end that have development. I should think - I've always been struck how religions - unlike science, religion is profoundly narrative. All religions convey stories. And I think that speaks to who we are as a species. Our understanding comes through stories, are exemplified through stories, are understood through stories.
CORNISH: Yann Martel - his new novel is called "The High Mountains Of Portugal."
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