When you have the opportunity to ask one question to the Man Booker Prize-winning and international bestselling author of Life of Pi, Yann Martel, you better be damn sure it isn’t a stupid one. Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal (Random House, 2016) follows three men in three different time periods who experience the profound loss of a loved one. They explore a myriad of subject matter pertinent to and beyond their respective eras searching for comfort like philosophy and religion.
Based on all of this I think I found my question for this latest installment of our ‘One Question and Answer’ series. Here’s what Martel had to say:
Question: You cover a wide range of topics in The High Mountains of Portugal, not excluding religion. These grieving men question why a God would let such horrors befall their loved ones. Do you think, where faith is more criticized than ever these days, that examining religion through fiction can reveal truths within ourselves?
Yann Martel: Let’s back up first and look at the two worthwhile activities at which we human beings far exceed the capacities of any other species: our ability to think and to love. I don’t think anyone will deny that we are a phenomenally intelligent species. Man on the moon, computers, vaccinations, constitutions, books, and so on and so forth—our intellectual prowess is on display everywhere.
But we also have a capacity to love that is quite breathtaking and that surpasses any animal loyalty. These two activities are the hallmark of our species. Look at any achievement—a soaring building, a scientific breakthrough, a beautiful painting, a stirring symphony, whatever—and you will see how these were achieved through balancing our two fundamental capacities.
Let’s look more specifically at writing. Writing balances perfectly the ability to think and to love. Great writing is clarified by sound thinking, and great writing is rooted in one love or another, the love of language or a particular literary form, or the love of a subject or of the one who inspired a story, or, more likely, the love of all of these combined. A great novel, by combining to startling effect our greatest capacities, lies at the heart of what it means to be human.
Now, of thinking, which is the thinking that goes the furthest: the thinking that simply observes, or the thinking that imagines?
To put it in a form more to do with writing, and expressing it more crudely, which goes further: non-fiction—the histories and biographies and treaties of this world—or fiction? I have no difficulty settling on an answer: fiction. Not that non-fiction can’t be great—back off there, you growling biographers and historians!—but fiction goes further. A great novel about Russia, say, will always outmatch a great history of Russia—because a great novel about Russia will necessarily contain many of the truths of history, plus some.
This plus some is the ingredient of imagination. The great novelist both observes and imagines. The great novelist, with his or her empathetic imagination, goes where the historian or the biographer cannot go.
And now let’s come round to answering the question of whether examining religion through fiction can reveal truths within ourselves.
Curiously, for an experience that is so highly subjective, the discourse on religion is largely dominated by nonfiction. I saw that when I did my research for Life of Pi, how many great books there are about God that shy from the fictional. Think Karen Armstrong, to name only one author.
But the fact is that there is very little of immediate and personal substance to religion that is objective. There is the history of religion, but that is incidental to the inner religious experience; the history of religion is an institutional history quite separate from the inner breathing of faith. Faith came before the churches. Faith is the main thing here, and faith is about as subjective as you can get.
And the strength of art, of the novel, is its capacity to explore the personal, the subjective. Which is why, to take a Christian example, Jesus taught not in straightforward terms, but in parables. A parable is a literary device. It is metaphoric speech, talking about one thing to explain another. A parable is an instance of fiction. And other religions also abound in fictional stories and literary devices. All religions tell stories. So, if Jesus and other prophets taught using fiction, should we not look to fiction ourselves?
Religion lives in the same space as fiction. Both are deadened by the gaze of the literal-minded, whether it be those who take to religion in a literal way, or those who reject it on literal grounds. Both the metaphors of religion and of literature need to be read with lightness. That is the approach that best suits them, that opens them up.
There is something that feels like fiction to religion, isn’t there? The miracles of Jesus, for example, would fit very nicely in a fantasy novel. And, the pendant, there is something of the exaltation of religion, the sense of awe, in great fiction. Both explore truth in a way that goes beyond leaden factuality.
Both are forms that are nourished, given their inner life, by our imagination. Both flee the objective and the literal to soar in that part of us that prefers the elusive and the subjective.
So, to answer the question concretely: yes, fiction can bring to light religious truths about ourselves, because life is a novel of which we are the characters, so to study fiction—and that includes religion, because both are about truth—is to study ourselves.