Yann Martel, the Canadian author of the Man Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi, was in India recently to promote his book The High Mountains of Portugal, a novel with three stories about three widowers who deal with loss, love and a chimpanzee.
It was also an occasion to revisit Life of Pi. In Kolkata, where Martel was visiting for the Kolkata Literary Meet, he discussed his seminal work on a boat that sailed down the river in the evening. In a freewheeling chat with Scroll.in, Martel spoke about why some of the most imaginative stories are born out of religious faith and what we can learn from animals. Excerpts from the interview:
During one of your sessions, you compared religion with novels. You said they both function from a place of suspension of disbelief. Would you say it is a willing suspension of disbelief? Or as a writer or a narrator, do you nudge your audience to that place where disbelief ends?
It has to be willing. None of these things is passive. Any kind of faith demands active involvement. Not just religious, any kind of faith functions because of the involvement of someone and their active willingness. Of course, you could wilfully decide to not suspend your disbelief. There are plenty of people who, no matter what, will say “No, no, no. I don’t like this”. It demands a certain openness, and that openness then leads to potential suspension of disbelief, which can fall at any point.
You know when people start reading a book, they suspend their disbelief, and then something happens and they say “Oh!” and they lose interest. [It’s] the same thing with religion. People are religious and they’re bitterly disappointed because a priest or a guru abuses them or robs them, and then their faith disappears. At all times, you want someone to be active, for that suspension of disbelief to operate.
You say you are a secular person and your writing comes from a place of faith. What is your definition of faith?
The reason I say I’m secular is because if I say anything else I’m afraid people are going to pigeonhole me as some kind of evangelist, and that’s a reduction of art. Art is not about forcing you to believe anything. And the fact is that as a Westerner I’m more familiar with Christianity and frankly I’m quite comfortable with the figure of Christ.
The only comparable figure is Krishna. There is a certain loving kindness to Krishna, as there is to Christ. There is a certain sort of humanity to Krishna. Not quite like Jesus, who was crucified and killed. You can’t imagine a Hindu god dying, but nonetheless there is a kind of humbleness to Krishna. A tolerance of human foibles that you can only see elsewhere in Jesus. I kind of like Christianity.
All religions have something that I find deeply appealing so I don’t advocate any particular one, I just advocate a kind of faith. And the reason I discussed religious faith is because this is the one that makes the greatest leap. To have faith in a person [involves] a fair degree of self interest. Like, you fall in love with a boy or a girl, well, that’s a leap of faith. But if you take the correct leap of faith, you will get sex in return. You might get status, you might get children, you might get money. So there’s a degree of self-interest.
How is religious faith different from any other kind of faith?
Let’s take politics for instance. You love a particular political party. It’s usually because it’ll improve your lot. You know workers usually support communism because they hope it’ll improve their lot. There’s a degree of self-interest. There’s less self-interest in religion. You believe in Jesus, you believe in Krishna, doesn’t mean your salary is going to go up. Doesn’t mean you’ll suffer any less. And yet, people want to make that leap of faith. And it’s the one that makes the most imaginative claims.
There are no greater imaginative claims than those of religion. They’re literally beyond belief. They’re contradictory. How can you walk on water? It’s a metaphor, obviously. How can you overcome death? So it’s the one I find the most adorable, because it’s so ambitious. And as for me, I choose to believe, because it obviously makes sense. But I choose no particular denomination, because either they’re all equally true, or they’re all equally false.
What is it about religion that attracts you?
What I particularly like about the different religions is that they all have a certain feel. For example, what I like about Islam is embracing simplicity. Islam is like the game of chess. The rules are very simple. But once you start playing, you’re like “Wow! What a complicated game!” Islam is like that. Simple. Not simplistic.
If you compare it to Christianity with its absurd theology...Christian theology is completely ridiculous. If there’s unity, there’s trinity. It boggles the mind. Its complexity is not particularly gratifying.
Also, I love the way Muslims pray. There is a physicality, which I like. I also like how Islam is explicitly social. Of course, it’s sexist. I’m not defending that but they’re all sexist, frankly. But there’s a deep divinity in Islam and it’s also very egalitarian. That’s their theory at least. I know the kings of Saudi Arabia are filthy rich, but it aspires to be egalitarian. So, like that, what I like about Christianity is its emphasis on love. What I love about Hinduism is its extraordinary exploration of the human psyche, like the Greek myths. You look at the Greek myths and you see human psychology turning into metaphor.
Would you say that Hinduism is different in its story telling?
All religions tell stories. But man! Hinduism is on another planet, in terms of the number of stories it tells! The richness of the metaphors...and I also like the practice of Hinduism. One thing I love about Hinduism is “darshan”. I love the idea that it’s a visual contact. You look at god, god looks at you, and that’s your moment. The connection is very visual. And I love the way you practice that. I went to these vast festivals in the south where you wait hours and hours and you slowly get closer, and the room gets damp and moist and suddenly you see this divine baby, for just a split second, and then you’re pushed out of it. It’s sort of electrifying!
Each religion has one of these characteristics. So it’s a pity to choose only one.
Your latest book, The High Mountains of Portugal, is being constantly compared with Life of Pi. What do you think makes Life of Pi so popular and well loved even after nearly two decades since its publication?
I think, probably, its tone. We live in a very complicated, fearful world. And one of the defence mechanisms we use for that is cynicism. We’re cynical. We’re fed constantly in our cynicism. In newspapers. Life of Pi in uncynical. Pi is religious and he’s not dripping in cynicism. He genuinely loves all the religious stuff.
Also the novel asks all kinds of questions that people, at heart, want to ask about meaning. What does it mean to be alive? Though people don’t like organised religion. People always aspire to understand life. What does it mean? They’re more spiritual than we realise. And people are more willing to believe that organised religion is corrupt and to some extent, it is. But people do have the aspirations to fit in, and this novel discusses that. It discusses religion openly, without discussing the terrible things religion does to women, to Jews and to gays, patriarchy and all that.
All of that is true, but there’s something else happening and that’s what I’m exploring in the book. Also, it’s surprising, it’s a philosophical novel, but the plot is very much that of an adventure story. A castaway story. So I think it’s that mixture of sort of adventure of the body and the spirit. In other words, I have no idea. You have to ask the reader. I was surprised that it was this popular. I was amazed that a book about zoos and religion would be so popular.
About the tiger, could you have written it with any other animal?
Oh, I did! Initially, it was going to be an elephant. But that was too comic, and then it was going to be a rhinoceros, but then the problem was that rhinoceroses are herbivores, as are elephants for that matter, and I didn’t know how to make a herbivore survive in the Pacific. So finally I needed a carnivore, and I chose the biggest carnivore in India, which was the tiger.
I wasn’t particularly happy with that because the rhinoceros is a little known animal. We all sort of vaguely know them but we don’t know their habits so it was good as a storytelling vehicle, to use a rhinoceros. Whereas, everyone knows tigers. They’re ferocious. They’re carnivores. I wasn’t that happy, but...
About the chimpanzee in High Mountains. You talked about how you look into their eyes in the zoos and you see a sense of disquiet.
What I find about animals is that most of us – not in India because there are so many animals, but in a temperate country like Canada – most human beings live completely isolated from any other life form. They only live with themselves.
It breeds contempt, and when we meet an animal, it has an odd effect on us. A proof of that, for example, is people who love their pets. [There is] something disquieting and reassuring about animals. Domestic ones, we love, because they love us unconditionally, we think. Wild animals, they’re on this planet like us, but they don’t have the capacity to reason. And yet, they survive. They survive better than us. We’re destroying our planet. Predators and prey, together, don’t destroy the planet. It’s brutal, they keep themselves in a balance. Too many predators, less prey, predators starve, more prey, predators eat. It means the planet endures.
Clearly, to me, that fact means that reason is unnecessary. We have this unnecessary capacity called rationality. It is not necessary to survive on this planet, so what’s the point of it? And I find, especially, when you look at animals like a chimpanzee or gorilla that have a far more limited capacity to reason, although [we] are so extraordinarily intelligent in comparison to other animals, it always makes me question: “Why are we reasonable?” “What’s the point of it?” “Why is it around?” “Why are we so unique as a species?”
And that was the whole point of Life of Pi. To balance reason and faith. Stop being reasonable, don’t be crazy, but balance it with something else, more mysterious and to me that’s an example, I find in animals.