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The mega-selling author on faith, animals and his new novel — and his instant rise from struggling writer to literary household name. His discovery of faith was bound up with another awakening — to the wonder of animals.
I camped near cows and observed them at length. I started attending masses, pujas and Friday prayers. The story it made possible for Martel was Life of Pi , his Man Booker prize-winning novel, adored around the world, which has now, he tells me, sold nearly 13m copies. It is a set text in schools, has been translated into more than 40 languages and been adapted into a film for which director Ang Lee won an Oscar. Following its publication and the subsequent fanfare, Martel went on a world publicity tour that lasted two whole years.
But there are obvious comparisons between the new book and the tour de force for which, he concedes, he will always be best-known. It is another exploration of grief, faith and the limits of reason, and it features — even more obviously than Life of Pi — an animal symbolising the divine. So Martel has found himself once again rehearsing his now highly polished opinions on such topics as the uses of allegory and why animals make such good characters.
He is very fluent talker, who is unafraid to provide an intellectual toolkit to understanding his work or to deliver the more profound meaning-of-life messages his fiction is intended to convey.
The animal-as-divine this time round is a chimpanzee. In the second section, a pathologist conducts a surreal autopsy and discovers inside the dead body of an elderly man a bear cub which stands for his son, who died as a boy and, wrapped around the cub, a young chimpanzee, a symbol of Jesus and the faith that had kept the man going. Most reviews spent little time on the connections between its three parts, which, Martel has determinedly explained, represent atheism, agnosticism and belief.