Monday February 08, 2016

Yann Martel on the appeal — and confusing place names — of Portugal

Yann Martel's latest novel is The High Mountains of Portugal.

Yann Martel's latest novel is The High Mountains of Portugal. (Knopf Canada/CP)

Listen 19:07

Yann Martel's latest novel is actually three stories, all set in Portugal at different points in the 20th century. Each one can be read independently of the others, but they're also interconnected. The High Mountains of Portugal is Martel's sixth book — he is, of course, also the author of the bestseller and Man Booker Prize winner Life of Pi. He spoke to The Next Chapter host Shelagh Rogers from Saskatoon.


Portugal is close to my heart because it was the first country I travelled to on my own, as a young adult. My parents were posted in Madrid, and rather than flying straight to Spain, I decided to fly into Lisbon and travel up and down the country. In the northeast, there's an area known as Trás-os-Montes, which means "beyond the mountains." I thought it was very odd because there were no mountains there... why would you call some place "Beyond the Mountains" when there are no mountains to start with? It always stayed with me, this idea of calling a place something that doesn't quite apply to the geographical truth. And so when I came to write this book, I wanted an area that was slightly rarified and eccentric. I changed it from Trás-os-Montes to High Mountains, because of course there are no high mountains in Portugal. That's the irony of the title.


When I was writing my third novel, Beatrice and Virgil, I read a lot of testimony from Holocaust survivors. They have this aura around them, because they've suffered through this key symbolic event of the 20th century. But I read something where a survivor of the camps said: It didn't give me any insight. It didn't make me a better person. It just made me suffer, it reduced my humanity. They were coming out of it with no great insight into the human condition, just having suffered tremendously. As a counterpoint, one of the perceptions of Christianity is that we should at least try to be bettered by our suffering. I think that's a question all of us have to consider, when we become sick or as we age. How do we deal with this suffering? What do we let it do to us? Do we try to deny it as long as possible, and if we don't, if we try to deal with it head-on, then what is our reaction going to be? Do we let it demolish us and turn us towards bitterness, or do we try to make it improve us?

Yann Martel's comments have been edited and condensed.

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