World Literature

Yann Martel

 

BORN: 1963, Salamanca, Spain

NATIONALITY: Canadian

GENRE: Fiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (1993)

Self (1996)

Life of Pi (2001)

 

 

Yann Martel. Martel, Yann, photograph. AP images.

 

Overview

Yann Martel, a Canadian writer, has received international acclaim for work that celebrates the power of the imagination in the face of adversity, blending philosophical inquiry with metafiction. All of his published works have won literary prizes; his second novel, Life of Pi (2001), received the 2002 Booker Prize, and became an international best seller.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

An International Childhood. Yann Martel was born on June 25, 1963, in Salamanca, Spain, the child of two civil servants of French Canadian descent. His father, Emile Martel, was both a diplomat and a noted poet. Martel’s childhood was spent in numerous parts of the world, including Alaska, Costa Rica, France, India, Mexico, and Turkey. He attended secondary schools and Trent University in Ontario, and Concordia University in Quebec, from which he received a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy in 1985.

First Story Collection. After graduating from Concordia, Martel took a variety of jobs—tree planter, dishwasher, parking lot attendant, security guard, and librarian. Meanwhile, he wrote stories. His first work of fiction, consisting of four stories, was published under the title The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (1993). In the title story, a Canadian college student is forced to confront mortality when his nineteen-year-old friend Paul is diagnosed with AIDS. The story takes place over the nine-month period of Paul’s decline and death. Paul and the narrator decide to lighten their mood by entertaining each other with stories; they invent the Roccamatios, ‘‘a Finnish family of Italian extraction,’’ and weave their fictions around key events in twentieth-century history. The story won the Journey Prize for the best Canadian short story of 1991.

Breakthrough with Life of Pi. Martel’s first novel, Self, appeared in 1996. It is narrated by a young man who, on his eighteenth birthday, undergoes a metamorphosis into a woman. This premise allows for an extended meditation on identity and otherness, gender and sexual orientation, and—after the character undergoes a brutal rape by a neighbor—the body and its violation. After seven years as a woman, the narrator reverts to being a man. In a 2007 interview, Martel says that his exploration in Self originated from ‘‘the idea that the body is an environment, and just as we adapt to our outer environment, the body has an inner environment that we adapt to.’’ Though the novel received the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and was up for other awards, it did not sell well.

His next endeavor, however, was both a critical and a commercial breakthrough. Life of Pi (2001), a tour de force combining religion, zoology, and adventure on the high seas, earned him worldwide praise and England’s prestigious Booker Prize. The genesis for the novel came from two sources. One was a journey he took to India in 1997, with plans to write a novel. The other is a novella entitled Max and the Cats, by the Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar, in which a boy finds himself alone on a boat with a jaguar. According to interviews, Martel did not read the novella, but came across a newspaper review of it. The novel he had originally envisioned did not come to fruition, but while in India Martel remembered Max and the Cats, and from its premise the idea for Life of Pi took shape. Martel, who acknowledged Scliar’s influence in a preface to the novel, was accused of plagiarism in some quarters. However, Scliar declined to press the case.

Current Projects. Martel spent the academic year of 2002 through 2003 in Germany as a visiting professor at the Free University of Berlin. He published a collection of stories, We Ate the Children Last, in 2004. He now lives in Montreal. Martel gained attention in 2007 with a public project to mail selected books to the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper. He has sent more than thirty paperback books, one every two weeks, each with an accompanying letter. His stated intention is to help the politician nurture ‘‘stillness’’ through literary appreciation.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Martel's famous contemporaries include:

Douglas Coupland (1961—): Canadian author who popularized Zeitgeist terms such as "Generation X'' and "McJob."

David Foster Wallace (1962-2008): American novelist and essayist, who is the author of Infinite Jest.

Jonathan Lethem (1964-): American novelist and essayist.

Lisa Moore (1964-): Canadian author whose works concern her background in Newfoundland.

Colson Whitehead (1969-): American novelist.

Stephen Harper (1959-): Prime minister of Canada (from 2006).

 

Works in Literary Context

In his brief career, Yann Martel has written in an innovative style, and earned comparisons with a wide variety of literary artists. His works share some characteristics with those of magic realists such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, absurdists such as Samuel Beckett, and travel writers including Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin. He has been compared to Italo Calvino, Paul Auster, and Salman Rushdie, three inventive and philosophical novelists known for experimenting with the boundaries between genres.

Philosophical Fiction. Martel studied philosophy as a college student, and metaphysical speculations are a strong undercurrent in his fiction. His most obvious thought experiment is his novel Self, an extended inquiry into the role gender plays in the construction of selfhood. Martel’s early stories center on the power of creativity, imagination, and storytelling; the latter theme plays a key role toward the end of Life of Pi, when the narrator insists that his listeners select ‘‘the better story.’’ Florence Stratton, writing in Studies in Canadian Literature, reads the conflict between the bureaucrats and Pi as one between two philosophical dispositions at variance with one another, the positivist and the poststructuralist. The novel, with its ambiguous conclusion, is open to diverse allegorical interpretations.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Yann Martel's Life of Pi is a cunning variation on a perennial theme: the adventure of the castaway. This story goes back, literally, to the beginnings of recorded literature (if not the beginning of seafaring). Here are some notable examples of the genre:

''The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor'' (c. 2200 BCE). This brief tale from ancient Egypt tells the story of a sailor who encounters a giant serpent on an island and is the first known castaway tale in world literature.

''The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor'' (ninth century CE), a legend documented in the Book of One Thousand and One Nights. The stories of the merchant who survives shipwreck after shipwreck in the Indian Ocean are among the most well-known tales from the book.

Robinson Crusoe (1719), a novel by Daniel Defoe. This classic castaway story is a landmark of Western literature.

Lord of the Flies (1954), a novel by William Golding. In this famous allegorical novel, a group of British boys stranded on a deserted island descend into warfare.

Foe (1986), a novel by J. M. Coetzee. A postmodern revision of Robinson Crusoe featuring a female castaway and characters named Cruso, Friday, and Daniel Foe.

 

Works in Critical Context

Yann Martel has won numerous literary prizes for his short stories and for the novel Life of Pi. Two stories from his first collection received awards. In addition, he won the 1993 Air Canada Award, given by the Canadian Authors Association, for the story ‘‘Bright Young New Thing.’’ Capturing the prestigious Booker Prize in 2002 for Life of Pi brought him into the front rank of contemporary writers with an international following. Reviewers have responded to Martel’s blend of intellectual substance, emotional appeal, and experimental style.

Reviews of Martel’s first novel, Self, were mixed. Some found the book an unsatisfying read due to its novel narrative structure and protean protagonist; others declared the novel a highly perceptive and engaging look at problems of gender and identity. Life of Pi earned nearuniversal enthusiasm from reviewers, though some found the novel’s structure cumbersome and others were critical of its religious musings. Life of Pi has most engaged reviewers and critics as a postmodern philosophical novel concerned with the nature of religious faith and the connection between religion and the human need for narratives. Martel endorsed this interpretation in an interview with Sabine Sielke: ‘‘To say the book will make you believe in fiction, to me, isn’t very far from saying it’ll make you believe in God.’’

Responses to Literature

1. Write about some of the liberties Martel takes with novelistic conventions, and his possible reasons for taking them.

2. In the novel Self, the protagonist unexpectedly transforms from a man to a woman. Through what techniques does Martel convey the differences, and continuities, of identity created by this sudden shift?

3. Many critics view Life of Pi as an allegory, but for what? What is the novel’s broader meaning?

4. What ideas does Martel express about the significance of stories in people’s lives?

5. Martel was criticized after he admitted that he borrowed the premise of Life of Pi from another published work. What are your views about the line between influence and plagiarism? Is any book or piece of art truly ‘‘original’’ or is it always influenced by what precedes it?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Periodicals

Cole, Stewart. ‘‘Believing in Tigers: Anthropomorphism and Incredulity in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.’’ Studies in Canadian Literature 29 (Summer 2004): 22-37.

Dwyer, June. ‘‘Yann Martel’s Life of Pi and the Evolution of the Shipwreck Narrative.’’ Modern Language Studies 35 (Fall 2005): 9-21.

Innes, Charlotte. ‘‘Robinson Crusoe, Move Over.’’ The Nation, August 19, 2002.

Iyer, Pico. ‘‘The Last Refuge: The Promise of New Canadian Fiction.’’ Harper’s, June 2002.

Sielke, Sabine. ‘‘‘The Empathetic Imagination’: An Interview with Yann Martel.’’ Canadian Literature 177 (Summer 2003): 12-32.

Steinmetz, Andrew. ‘‘Pi: Summing up Meaning from the Irrational: An Interview with Yann Martel.’’ Books in Canada 31 (2002): 18.

Stratton, Florence. ‘‘‘Hollow at the Core’: Deconstructing Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.’’ Studies in Canadian Literature 29 (Summer 2004): 5-17.

Web sites

Robinson, Tasha. ‘‘Interviews: Yann Martel.’’ A. V. Club. Accessed June 19, 2008 from http://www.avclub.com/content/interview/yann_martel. Last updated on November 6, 2007.

‘‘What is Stephen Harper Reading?’’ Accessed June 18, 2008, from http://www.whatisstephenharperreading.ca. Last updated on June 9, 2008.