Even though the just-published illustrated version of Life of Pi will be a huge seller in the run-up to Christmas, Yann Martel has moved on from his international bestseller.
The Canadian author won the Man Booker Prize in 2002 with the highly entertaining and thought-provoking story of a shipwreck that leaves Pi Patel stranded in a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a huge Bengal tiger called Richard Parker.
Counting out loud, Martel thinks he has visited at least 23 to 24 nations to promote the book that has been published in 44 countries. “Russia, Poland... Slovenia, Czech Republic... Israel, Hong Kong,” he recalls. Most of Europe is covered off by his list.
But the Booker Prize victory was five years ago, and he’s spent a long time working a new novel that will probably be published in 2009. “I don’t think about Life of Pi that often anymore,” he admitted.
Life of Pi illustrator, Croatian artist Tomislav Torjanac, was found via a worldwide contest. “(The contest) wasn’t my idea – it was the idea of Jamie Byng at my UK publisher Canongate,” said Martel. “I’m following the instructions of my publisher but I thought it was a good idea because I remember reading illustrated Jules Verne books as a child.
“I love the visual arts. I became involved when the 1600 entrants had been cut down to 60. We liked Tomislav because of his adult aesthetic, his use of colour, his sense of concentration and the way that everything is seen from Pi’s perspective. You never see Pi in his illustrations.”
“Tomislav’s illustrations are a single snapshot of the story and I don’t think they’ll cramp my own style of how I think about the characters. However, the movie (planned for release in 2009) will change things – people might say ‘I didn’t think Pi spoke in an Indian accent!”
After Life of Pi was released, Martel took a position as writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library – Saskatoon, his hometown, is found in the prairie province of Saskatchewan in the heart of Canada. It was a role he had applied for before Life of Pi hit the big time and it was stint of nine months that he relished.
“People would bring to me 10 pages of prose and we’d have a one-on-one and discuss what they had written,” he said. “It was like a book club of two. While the quality could be low, the intent was always pure – no matter what genre they were writing in, even horror, they put a lot into their writing. I met people from 13 to 87-years-old.”
More recently he has been scholar-in-residence at the University of Saskatoon. “I don’t have any duties,” he said. “I have a little office, which I love. It’s in the library and that’s where I write. It’s where I work. It’s wonderful because there are books everywhere.”
His long-awaited new book should make an impact for a variety of reasons. It is about the Holocaust and some animals on a shirt. There are two sections to the project – the novel and an essay, and both will be published in the same book. Except that it will be a flip book, which means that the reader will have to turn the book over to read the essay or novel depending on which they have read first. Essentially, half of the book is printed upside down. The essay, according to Martel, could be seen as an elongated author’s note that simply carried on and on. The book will have two covers and the publisher has the interesting dilemma of where to place the book’s ISBN and how to go about designing two covers. The bookstores will have the choice of putting the book in the fiction section (for the novel) or in non-fiction (for the essay).
However, the real impact could be Martel’s treatment of the Holocaust. He admits the story could be controversial for some.
“I want to go beyond the emotional reaction you get when something becomes saturated,” said Martel, who has read 60 to 70 books for his Holocaust research as well as visiting Auschwitz three times.
“Our vision of events is constructed in a certain way. For example, it took around 10 years for our vision of World War I to be formed. It’s seen as a tragic loss of life – the loss of a generation but it took the war poets and Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms to help represent how we came to think of the war.
“There is a single school of representation for the Holocaust. You see that in Night by Elie Wiesel and also Primo Levi’s books, and they adhere to this single representation. Albert Camus wrote The Plague as a metaphor for World War II where the Germans were represented as the plague but a plague is natural and the Germans willed what they did.”
In Canada, Martel is also known as a campaigner for the arts as well as his writing. This year, he hit the headlines for creating a campaign where he sent a book and a letter every two weeks to Canada’s prime minister Stephen Harper in order to encourage investment and support for the arts.
Harper, from Canada’s oil rich province of Alberta, appears to be no fan of literature or any other arts for that matter – something Martel is keen to change.
Martel’s website (whatisstephenharperreading.ca) details each book sent to Ottawa and the accompanying letter which explains why each title is important. He has sent a true mixture of classics including To Kill A Mockingbird, Animal Farm, Candide, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and Chronicle of a Death Foretold – a selection that would keep most readers happy for some time. Each accompanying letter is a brief and interesting critique from Martel of why that book matters.
Aside from a brief acknowledgement from Harper’s office to Martel’s opening delivery of The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy, Harper himself has not replied. It appears that the books are being stacked in a corner to gather prime ministerial dust.
“If you read a book then you have lived an extra life,” said Martel, who is embarrassed by the fact that even America’s much-maligned and ridiculed leader George Bush (who is married to a librarian) is seen with books in his hands while the leader of Canada steers clear of the arts.
“I’m not surprised,” he said. “I suspect he hasn’t read a book since he was a teenager. I think he thinks that art is just entertainment. For me, culture defines Canadian life. I volunteered in a hospice for the terminally ill and the big question among the people I met was the meaning of life, love, beauty and friendship. Their profession, what car they had, what their salary was… these were all irrelevant. Harper is not unique - there are plenty of technocrats who believe economics and commerce are the only things that matter.”