Life The Yann of

Mar­tel had started to de­spair of mak­ing lit­er­a­ture a vi­able day job when for­tune smiled on him, writes Rose­mary Sorensen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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

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