Life Of Pi author Yann Martel on surviving fame and keeping the faith

by Vatsala Chhibber

The trouble with success lies in the afterword. Once you’ve crowd-surfed through dizzying fame and millions in earnings, landing back on your feet and taking the metro home is a bummer. But Yann Martel managed it differently. During his time with literary stardom, the Canadian author welcomed the success, and rejected the celebrity. Yes to the three-million dollar advance for his new book, no to the social media accessibility. Which explains why Martel doesn’t hold the instant recognition of Rowling or Rushdie, and any mention of name, even on book jackets, accompanies the suffix ‘author of Life Of Pi’. That will probably never change.

“I’ll tell you one thing, fame is very external. It’s not something you feel, like hunger or lust. The idea that I’m ‘famous’ leaves me completely indifferent,” says Martel, quick, concise, leaden almost. You can tell he’s answered enough questions on success to recognise its subtext: what if your career best is in the past? “That doesn’t bother me. Life Of Pi was a freak success. I just don’t expect it to happen again on that scale.”

In 2001, Martel was the archetypal struggling writer — meager paychecks, rejection slips, heavily in pursuit of that breakthrough novel. His first two books, The Facts Behind The Helsinki Roccamatios (1993) and Self (1996), in which a man wakes up as a woman and is later raped, barely made a noise in his home country. His third, published after the routine rejections, was the story of shipwrecked zookeeper Piscine Patel, a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker and their 227 days at sea. Unexpectedly, Life Of Pi grew into a literary blockbuster. The nerve-wracking adventure used religion to fight 21st-century cynicism, and Martel’s choose-your-ending left you to debate the solace of delusion versus the horror of reality. President Barack Obama wrote his preference to Martel: “[My daughter and I] agreed we prefer the story with animals. It is a lovely book — an elegant proof of God”.

Martel’s anonymity was undone with a dream run on bestseller lists, the 2002 Man Booker prize and an Oscar-winning movie adaptation. Just in time, too, he says. “It’s very hard to keep on writing in the face of the indifference of the world. It’s easy in your twenties or thirties, but when you hit 40 and 50, to write and rewrite and be rejected is extremely hard.” It wouldn’t be unfair to call the 52-year-old an overall late bloomer — he zeroed in on a career at 27, found literary recognition when he was inching close to 40 and came to fatherhood at 46. A large part of his youth, Martel says, was lost to vague existential angst. “I had a degree in philosophy, I was intelligent, but I had no idea what I wanted to do.” He survived mostly on odd jobs — tree-planter, security guard, dishwasher — and backpacked deep into unfamiliar countries to find purpose. “I tell [children in] schools: At one point in your life, go travelling. Go to India. It’s the best place on earth, and the worst place on earth. There were cities I didn’t like because they 
were noisy and ugly, but I felt alive.”

It was in India that Martel found his two greatest allies: religion and animals. He’s apologetic about offering the tired, white perspective on the country — the wall of humidity, the chaos of second-class trains, the unsettling ghats of Benares — but then, the best travel happens to the uninformed. “Growing up, I didn’t believe in religion at all. But when I got to India, Hinduism was exotic to me. It was so different from what I had known, that for the first time I managed to look at religion with a degree of dispassion. This curious, anti-empirical thing called faith intrigued me and made me write Life Of Pi, and eventually this novel.”

Martel’s latest, The High Mountains Of Portugal, is the story he abandoned for Pi. It was going nowhere. But in the last few years, after sticking it out with his treadmill desk (you must Google this), he reached the end of his decade-old exploration of grief. It’s not as grim as you’d imagine. Even as the men leading the novel’s three stories confront devastating loss, Martel gives their journeys a playful lightness: a museum worker walks backwards to protest against life, a pathologist’s wife sermonises on the likeness of Agatha Christie mysteries to the Gospels, a widowed senator looks for a fresh start with a chimpanzee. He may be colouring the three narratives to reflect atheism, agnosticism and belief, but first, he’s giving you a classic good story. And his trademark animals. When Odo the chimpanzee enters the final section of the novel, The High Mountains Of Portugal finds its most poignant moments, and that familiar, comforting magic of Pi.  

Martel doesn’t have any pets, neither does he love animals more than the average person, but he gleaned their importance for writers from Hindu mythology. “They are rich, extraordinary characters, and very useful for a storyteller. For some reason we seem to cage animals into children’s literature.” 

But a certain monkey and donkey did Martel more harm than good. Beatrice And Virgil (2010), Martel’s follow-up to Life Of Pi, was an allegorical retelling of the Holocaust performed by the two animals in a taxidermist’s shop. He spent six years on it, the result of blockbuster syndrome some said, and reviews were unforgiving. One called it ‘The Worst Book Of The Decade’, others drew the line at “perverse” and “pretentious”. The few sounds of praise were drowned out. But Martel will have you know that he came out of it with no scars at all, thanks to his Buddhist belief  of “passionate detachment. You do your best and let go. You have to let go.”

Repeatedly, the conversation returns to religion — his fondness for Krishna, his identifying as a strictly non-denominational Christian, how faith is a good painkiller. And it’s starting to feel slightly unfashionable. Martel seems too sophisticated to accept the goodness of faith in the face of religion-fuelled oppression, violence and regression. I must inform him of young India’s beef with religion. “For good reason. If I were a young woman in India, I would not be sympathetic to Hinduism. All religions, unfortunately, have the same negative values, whether it’s sexism, patriarchy, homophobia. The thing to do, is to not throw it out wholesale. Change it instead of abandoning it to the side; because then you’re losing a big part of your culture. Reform Judaism, for instance, is liberal and progressive.”

In a barely-on-the-map Canadian town called Saskatoon, Martel continues to keep his life ordinary. He describes the prairie’s immense skies, clouds like moving Himalayas and punishing winters that can dip to minus 40 degrees Celsius. After years of wandering, he says he couldn’t resist the hug of small-town intimacy. “Here, in the quiet of my writing studio in the middle of nowhere, I work on my books, give them to the world, and hope they do well. Whether 12 million people read it or 12, you give. You give for nothing.” It’s exactly the kind of detachment that begs your cynicism. But Martel doesn’t mind. He tired of reason a long time ago; it kills art, mystery and religion, he says. And it hardly ever makes for good stories.

The High Mountains Of Portugal (Penguin Random House) is out now

Photograph: Geoff Howe

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