The front cover of The High Mountains of Portugal tells how the novel ‘…takes the reader on a road trip through Portugal in the last century- and through the human soul.’

Anne O’Sullivan, Manager of Information Services and Programming at the Milton Public Library explained how each year the library runs onebookOne Milton to highlight an author. Last year was Margaret Atwood and this year: Yann Martel. During the summer the library created interesting experiences based on themes in the novel. These included an Agatha Christie Murder Mystery evening; a visit from an investigative coroner, Dr. Cuberovic of Milton Emergency Department; Eddie O, a restaurant on Main Street, offered free Portuguese desserts; Milton travel agent Banerji Gloridason spoke about ‘the culture, food, beaches and 3,000 hours of sunshine’ that Portugal enjoys annually; and puzzle pieces relating to the book were hidden around town.

The library’s ad describes how: ‘this year’s novel takes us on a roller coaster ride of topics, including a coroner, long walks (backwards), and cherished mystery novels.’

The Canadian Encyclopaedia at www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/yann-martel/ states: ‘Novelist Yann Martel is best known for the international bestseller The Life of Pi (2001), which won the prestigious Man Booker Prize and was adapted into an Academy Award winning film of the same name….Life of Pi chronicles the remarkable journey of Pi Patel, an Indian teenager who is stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with an injured zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a large Bengali tiger by the name of Richard Parker. In his creation of such an unlikely tale, Martel encourages his readers to suspend their disbelief in order to better appreciate the mind’s uncanny ability to deal with the most extraordinary of circumstances.

‘In 2016, Martel published his fourth novel, The High Mountains of Portugal. The novel is comprised of three linked narratives that revolve around themes of grief and faith. Tomas has recently suffered the deaths of his son, lover and father, and in a bizarre act of spiritual rebellion, has vowed to only walk backwards, “his back to the world, his back to God.”

In the theatre, Mark Williams, Deputy Chief Librarian, thanked all who had organised the event and explained how their aim was to create a “really big book club” in Milton, concentrating on one book a year. Host of CBC News Network Michael Serapio emceed the ‘Evening with Yann Martel’ and amidst loud applause introduced the world renowned writer,

Yann Martel held the audience spellbound with his insightful, reflective words. He explained how he was intrigued by religious thinking and how people still believe in God in modern times? “…Every story begins with adversity. The characters have to deal with this…….We are all dealing with adversity….The best thing we can do in adversity is reach out. ”

Portugal was the first country Yann travelled to completely alone, backpacking. He recommends travel as he believes it is like reading a novel. “Any faith demands a trip, to lead to a state of grace……I love research, travel and reading all the Agatha Christie books… I found parallels between the Gospels and the novels of Agatha Christie who speaks about death as if it’s entertaining. This diminishes the fear of death. Jesus also made death more manageable, because if you’re a good person, it’s better on the other side……There are parallels between Jesus and Miss Marples- neither of them wrote anything down….also we remember who died in the Gospels and in Agatha Christie’s books, but we always forget or are confused about who killed them.”

“We are born of risen apes” he said, “not fallen angels.”

Michael Serapio: You seem to be suggesting that we are images of animals.

Yann: Are we Darwinian or is there something else? The element of doubt makes life interesting. Animals are great metaphors and symbols, very versatile. I chose the ape in the novel because they are close to our humanity…….We feel a calm with animals as in a church….I see many parallels between art and reality. Great art has a religious quality. What we have here isn’t everything.

Serapio: There is a point in the novel when after the death of his wife and child he starts walking backwards.

Yann: I wanted to present the idea of someone who walks backwards to express how wounded he was. He wants to link to the past. Later in the novel to walk backwards through grief becomes a tradition… People and events in the past, for whatever reason, somehow begin a tradition. For instance, Jesus was crucified at the same time as many others. Somehow his death changed the history of the world. Seemingly small things become traditions.

“I find the passage of time very interesting” said Yann. “I don’t have time to write any more (with 4 children), I’m not a straight line anymore. I’m a circle (because of the Circle of Life). That’s a lovely feeling. I’m no longer the future. My children are. I love it! I love that a horde of children has invaded my life.”

Michael Serapio asked “Are you worried that readers won’t get it?”

Yann replied “A great work of art should be open for interpretation. A book only comes to life when there are two imaginations involved: that of the writer and the reader.”

Entranced, listening to Yann Martel, the Milton audience seemed unwilling to break the spell that enveloped them with his inspiring, unconventional ideas. Time passed and afterwards Yann signed books. A long line wound around part of the FirstOntario Arts Centre. In the line, people spoke of their thoughts about the novel or silently began to read.

Photos by: Denise Cooperwhite

Jenny Panda
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