Life The Yann of
Martel had started to despair of making literature a viable day job when fortune smiled on him, writes Rosemary Sorensen
VERY few novels propel their authors on a world tour lasting several years, and Yann Martel knows that he will never again have the opportunities that came his way following the phenomenal success of Life of Pi . Six years on from the night he punched the air and whooped with unbridled joy when his name was read out as the winner of the Man Booker Prize, Martel is preparing for the publication of his new book, a combo novel and essay about the Holocaust.
With the manuscript delivered to his publishers, he has earned himself a long holiday, he says, and he and his wife, author Alice Kuipers, will spend the next eight months on the road, away from the house they recently bought in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. The first month of their travels will be spent in Australia, where he has star billing at the Brisbane Writers Festival. Despite that so- called world tour, this will be Martel’s first time in Australia.
Top of the list of things to see is birds. Somewhere between Brisbane and Sydney, the stretch of country the couple are restricting themselves to in the weeks they have at their disposal before they must head to Italy for a wedding, Martel wants to see flocks of cockatoos and budgies. In Canada such exotic birds are sold for thousands of dollars; he’s heard that farmers shoot them in Australia, and flocks of such pests he wants to see with his own eyes.
Martel is full of such enthusiasms. Now 45, quite recently married to Kuipers after meeting her at a writers festival in England where she was working as a volunteer, the Canadian self- taught polymath calls himself a nomad, someone for whom travel is a way of life. That a book about a boy who finds himself shipwrecked and adrift in a small boat with one of the tigers from his family’s zoo should have given such a life to a man with wanderlust is not without its ironies. If he believed in the divine — and he does — he’s the first to admit he has been blessed.
When he was sitting on a mountain top in India a little more than a decade ago, the blessing came to him in the form of a story. How he had gone to India, his second visit to a place that filled him with wonder, its overabundance of life and death exhilarating him and screwing his senses to the tautness of a wire, was well documented in the wake of his spectacular rise to international success when Life of Pi won the Booker.
He has told of the despair after modest praise and very few sales for his first two books, Seven Stories ( later published as The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios ) and Self , and of the concern that he was fast approaching the cut- off date beyond which making his living as a writer would no longer be possible. With ‘‘ no family to speak of’’ and ‘‘ nothing to show on my CV except this little hobby, writing’’, he approached India as an endgame.
‘‘ I was wondering, ‘ Where am I going from here?’ In those moments of crisis you re- examine things, and one of the things I re- examined was religion,’’ Martel says.
‘‘ Whatever you think about religion, it really does go to the core of who we are as human beings. It really stirs things up of a philosophical and existential nature.’’
Life of Pi , which is slowly working its way towards a movie adaptation, combined the folksy sweetness of a fable with the symbol- laden potential of a myth. Its appeal was vast, hitting with a satisfying thwack for the publishers, every target group from philosophers and social conservatives to literature lovers. It took Martel from obscurity to fame, even notoriety when his passing reference to the inspiration he received from a book he’d only read about in a review sparked off accusations of plagiarism: accusations eventually put to rest as unsubstantiated.
He had already begun thinking about the Holocaust book by the time he won the Booker but had to put it on hold for several years. For many writers, that delay would have been enervating. Martel not only accepted it, but welcomed it. ‘‘ I’m in no rush,’’ he says. ‘‘ I don’t have much to say, so I might as well say it slowly.’’
In fact, it’s clear he has a great deal to say. And if he writes slowly, he speaks very fast. His sentences are well- formed, the sign not only of someone often interviewed but also of a serious and deep thinker.
‘‘ I went through a phase when I was young, when I was angry,’’ Martel says. ‘‘ You take it out
The trouble with anger is it feeds into the wrong direction. I tried to have a more open approach’
‘on your parents to start with, then develop global anger, where you want righteous indignation. I got tired of that. Anger is pointless, a waste of time, and life isn’t long.
‘‘ The trouble with anger is it feeds into the wrong direction. I tried to let it go and have a more open and philosophical approach to life.’’
While he wasn’t ‘‘ dressing in robes with a yellow streak down my forehead’’, he did visit many ashrams in India and spoke with gurus. He has deep admiration for the Indian acceptance of teachers as spiritual guides. If Life of Pi hadn’t come along, he may have recycled himself as a teacher. ‘‘ There’s nothing more exciting than young, open minds,’’ he says.
In contrast, Martel deplores the rational mind that closes itself to the mysteries of what we don’t know and he has been waging a campaign for several years against someone he considers to have just such a mind, Stephen Harper. ‘‘ The Prime Minister of Canada is a man who is bright intellectually, but in a very limited way,’’ Martel says of Harper. ‘‘ He’s an ideologue, a man who does not read, so I wonder, how does he know about life? How does he explore life?
‘‘ One of the key tools for exploring life is through art and a man who does not read anything can know nothing about life.
‘‘ In a technocratic society, we are dominated by overly reasonable people who reduce life to some sort of equation. They reduce our society to a corporation. I don’t know about Kevin Rudd, but John Howard didn’t strike me as a reader, and these people are profoundly dangerous.’’
For more than a year Martel has been sending Harper’s office a book and a short commentary on why the PM would enjoy it. The list is on his website and he’s hoping to add an Australian novel — something short and classic that would open the politician to a different perspective — following his visit here this month. So far the only response from the Canadian PM’s office has been a short form letter acknowledging receipt.
Life of Pi, with its gentle criticism of our reliance on facts, was unfashionable in the way it championed religiosity over the secular. With the new book, A 20th- Century Shirt , Martel also is going against the grain in a way that may upset some readers.
‘‘ I’m not seeking to be polemical, but the very fact I’m not Jewish might make me suspect,’’ he says. ‘‘ What I’m essentially saying is we’ve got to broaden the way we approach the Holocaust because the overly sacramental approach may ultimately do us more harm than good.’’
He hastens to point out he’s ‘‘ on the right side’’, that his approach is not revisionist. ‘‘ I completely accept the horror and the magnitude of the event, but I’m saying we gotta loosen up the debate a bit,’’ he says.
As he researched for his book, he noticed that almost all books on the Holocaust were written by Jews. ‘‘ I can understand why, but at a particular point you have to say, this concerns more than one group. Whether it’s Jews, women, gays, blacks, Aborigines, at some point the dialogue has to include everyone.
‘‘ The problem with just one group writing about a topic is that you can have group- think, where traits shared by a group not necessarily skew but simply affect their position. When outsiders look at it, they may pick out things in that group that those within might not notice. It increases the number of ideas that can come out of discussing a historical event.’’
Martel sweeps aside any concerns about whether it’s morally permissible for a writer to appropriate the experience and the voices of people who have suffered from historical events. He calls it a ‘‘ bogus issue’’ and says appropriation is what artists have done for centuries.
‘‘ There are no taboos,’’ he says. ‘‘ Art is about experimentation, trying things on. I don’t imagine there are too many white male Australian writers, living in downtown Sydney, who will take on the story of a nine- year- old Aboriginal girl in the Northern Territory, but for me there is nothing wrong with that.
‘‘ It involves research, intuition and sheer talent, and any act like that is an attempt at building a bridge. It might not succeed, the bridge may collapse, but at least there was the attempt.’’ Yann Martel is a guest of the Brisbane Writers Festival this week.
Research, intuition and sheer talent: Yann Martel, whose next book offers a fresh perspective on the Holocaust