#42: Yann Martel 2008
Crossing Borders, May 22, 2019
In this session of Rewrite Radio, award-winning author Yann Martel traces his development from aspiring playwright to short story writer and novelist. Interviewed by Otto Selles, himself a French professor and poet, Martel lets us into the stories behind his stories, the quirks of his freewheeling curiosity, and the ideas at play in his art and mind.
- Yann Martel,
- Life of Pi
- The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios
- Reds (movie)
- Mavis Gallant (writer)
- Ron Hansen (writer)
- Picasso, Guernica
- Paul Simon, “Mrs. Robinson”
- George Orwell, Animal Farm
Chad Engbers (host): [00:00:01] Support for Rewrite Radio comes from the Fetzer Institute, helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Fetzer envisions a world that embraces love as a guiding principle and animating force for our lives—a powerful love that helps us live in sacred relationship with ourselves, others, and the natural world. Learn more by visiting fetzer.org.
Yann Martel talks about crossing the borders between languages and genres and religions. And more. Today on Rewrite Radio.
My name is Chad Engbers, and I teach in the English Department at Calvin College.
In this session of Rewrite Radio, we listen back to a conversation with writer Yann Martel from Festival 2008. Interviewed by Otto Selles, a French professor and poet, Martel lets us into the stories behind his stories, the quirks of his freewheeling curiosity, and the ideas at play in his art and mind.
Yann Martel is the author of four novels: The Life of Pi, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2002, as well as The High Mountains of Portugal, Beatrice and Virgil, and Self. He has also published a book of short stories, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and the collection 101 Letters to a Prime Minister, which address Canada’s former Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.
In addition to the Man Booker, Martel has received the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, and his work has appeared repeatedly on the New York Times bestseller list. His fictions has been translated into many world languages, as well as adapted for the screen and the stage.
Born in Spain, Martel now lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where he continues to write and also teaches at the University of Saskatchewan.
And now, Yann Martel, interviewed by Otto Selles at the 2008 Festival of Faith & Writing.
Otto Selles: [00:02:37] Welcome, everyone, to this afternoon session: “A Conversation with Yann Martel.” My name is Otto Selles. I teach here in the French department at Calvin College. I also serve on the faculty steering committee of the Festival, and every time after Festival, the committee gets together to discuss authors we would like to invite, and it was—before the 2006 Festival, Yann Martel was one of the first names that came up. He couldn’t make it; we tried again, and we are very glad that he could come. Last night we enjoyed a really great presentation on Life of Pi, on the reasons behind writing it and also Yann gave a reading of the text, a way of interpreting the two narratives in the novel. Tonight I’d like to talk with Yann a bit around that novel, to talk about his earlier works and also his current work. A new novel is coming out in the fall; I’d like to talk about that a bit.
Yann Martel: Fall of ’09.
Otto: Fall of ’09, okay. Alright, we’ll talk about that a bit, and we’ll also talk a little bit about Pi. You mentioned last night that you started writing when you were an undergrad at Trent University.
Otto: And you were a bit tired of the academic work, and you started writing plays. And I read that your first piece of writing was a play about a young man who falls in love with a door. I’ll say it again: A young man who falls in love with a door. Can you—can you tell me about that work?
Yann: Well, a friend of the family commented by saying, “I hope it’s not autobiographical!” [laughter] Well, what can I say? It was a—it was dreadful. It was a one-act play. It was abysmal [laughter]
Otto: [interposing] But what happened—a man enters, opens the door . . .
Yann: [interposing] I thought it was a—well, a young man falls in love with a door; a friend discovers this, destroys the door; our hero commits suicide. [laughter] It was that bad. [laughter] And I—I thought it was very earnest, and I thought it was quite brilliant, of course, and people took it ironically, and thought it was a comedy, a parody, and I said, “No, it’s quite serious. Isn’t it tragic!”
Otto: Not open and shut, then. [Martel and audience laugh]
Yann: That’s as bad as the play!
Otto: I try. [Martel laughs] Well, moving on from that one, you went on to write more plays, and then moved into short stories. Why—I know I understand picking a short story; you talked about being an apprentice. It makes a lot of sense, but—but why not poetry, which is even shorter? Your father’s a poet, a well-known poet . . .
Otto: . . . Won the Governor General’s Award. Why not go that direction?
Yann: I think each writer discovers the medium that he or she is most comfortable with. The reason I wrote a play, actually, has to do with the movie. If you remember an old movie called Reds? Do you remember Reds with—with and by Warren Beatty, about John Reed, who wrote Ten Days That Shook the World, which is about the October Revolution, so he was an American Communist—a rare breed—an American Communist who was in Russia during the October Revolution. And Beatty did this movie called Reds about his life, and those of you who have seen it will remember: John Reed—that was his name, right? Yeah, it was John Reed.
John Reed knew Eugene O’Neill, and when that movie came out, I happened to have been reading some plays of Eugene O’Neill, a whole slew of plays. I’d taken a summer theater course. I read a whole slew of O’Neill’s play[s], and this movie comes out, and in the movie, O’Neill is played by Jack Nicholson. This is ages ago, 20 years ago, so a young, incredibly charismatic Jack Nicholson. And there was one scene in the play where Diane Keaton plays—I think she played John Reed’s partner, and she was a bad actress—not Diane Keaton, the role she was playing, and she was in one of O’Neill’s early plays, and there’s one scene when he’s in his hotel room, and I think Keaton comes in, and he berates her on her acting, and—but there was a—before they speak, he’s sitting at the table and writing, and I was suddenly struck.
It was the first time I had scene a writer—a portrayal of a writer creating, and I was just struck at how banal it was. You just sit and you write, and so I left that movie thinking, I wonder if I could write a play? And I thought of a play because it was O’Neill. If it had been, you know, Hemingway, I might have tried to write a short story. So I thought I’d write a play. Part of the attraction, I find, of a play, is that as soon as you say the word “play,” in people’s minds, there is a stage, like here. So you evacuate every other extraneous detail except for a blank stage and characters who speak, which in a sense is very much like life. So I found that attractive, so I wrote this abysmal play. Then I wrote another absurdist pastiche, and the reason they were terrible is I found, and still find, that moving plot through dialogue is very, very difficult. People have a knack for it, and others don’t. You don’t have the help of prose to explain, to describe—everything has to go through dialogue, and it has to be dialogue that doesn’t—it has to sound like natural dialogue, most times, but in fact it’s completely unnatural in the sense that you have to convey information about the characters in a very natural way. So I couldn’t say, “Otto, who is a professor at Calvin, good to see you!”
Otto: Good to see you. [laughs with audience]
Yann: So you have to convey essential information in a very natural way. There has to be tension that is increasing, until there’s some climax, and it has to go back down. So you have to have this see-saw. I find it extraordinarily difficult. So my plays were clunkers, and so I switched to short stories, because prose seemed easier to wield with, and short stories just ‘cause they were short.
Otto: And poetry?
Yann: I’ve never—I guess I like rules, I like form, and I find there are no rules to poetry. And that puzzles me. Like, it’s very hard—it’s very easy to say, “This is a short story. This is a novel.” Whereas “This is a poem”—it’s very hard to decide what is a poem.
And that is to poetry’s credit. That’s one of its—but I never felt comfortable doing outright poetry, and also when you study English lit at university, which I did—I did a major in philosophy with a minor in English—I think academia does the most disservice to poetry.
Yann: ‘Cause novels you can still just enjoy, even if you don’t get half of the alleged symbolism or whatever, you can still enjoy it, whereas poetry is the one that I think you are felt to feel the dumbest if you don’t get it. [laughter] And some poetry’s completely impenetrable, whereas it’s rare that you have novels that are completely impenetrable.
Otto: Right. That doesn’t happen here in the English classes.
Yann: No, no, no. [he and audience laugh] So I never was attracted to poetry, although one hopes, of course, that one’s work is poetic in some ways.
Otto: Moving, then, on from your initial works to your first book—and I’ll try and say it—well, I’ll try: The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios.
Otto: Okay. [Martel laughs] It’s a collection of short stories, and I suppose, like many here, I first read Life of Pi, and then went back and read your earlier works when they came out in re-editions. And what struck me in reading these is the experimental side to these stories, as in your first play. And just to give an example, for those who haven’t read it, the last story is about the relationship between a young man and his grandmother and they’re using a special machine to make this fabulous mirror, a hand-made mirror. And the mother tends to go on and on and on, and the grandson obviously knows all the stories, and so what happens in the text in the short story is that once the mother gets going, the left-hand column just says, “Blah blah blah blah blah blah,” [laughter] and on the right are the thoughts of the young man.
Otto: And things like that, and how you structured the title story different years—why this—why this stress in the experimental, this desire to push fiction?
Yann: It came naturally, I guess. I guess when you’re young and you’re starting out, you wanna shake the cage. You wanna try new things . . . I was—a lot of things that I read at university—I mean, I think the grand era of English language prose was late 19th century Victorian prose and then early 20th century American fiction, you know. We think we’ve invented everything. You go to the prose—you know, the fiction of the beginning of the 20th century in America; I mean, people like John dos Passos, Faulkner—I mean, it’s amazing what they were doing in a formal way. So I guess I was influenced by that. Also when I started writing, I was living in Paris with my parents, off my parents. [laughter] And writing in English in a French city—I was working as a security guard to have some money to play around—writing in English in a French city meant that I was completely isolated.
Yann: Not quite like Solzhenitsyn in the Gulag, but isolated—not having any other writers I might have mixed with, sort of left on my own. So no one to say right away, “Oh, that’s not what a short story should look like.” So I did a lot of experimenting, just to sort of—I guess when you have an instrument—you know, when you get a violin—there must be a phase where you just try to—every single possible note to think and produce, including the horrible ones, cause they’re wrong—I guess that’s what I was doing. So I wrote a lot of short stories, many of them that don’t work, but I was just experimenting, so I went through a stage where I was writing—I wanted to write a series of very, very short stories, and they’d be called Stories in a Rush — no, Fic—what was it called? Something “in a Rush.” Anyway, stories for men and women with no time to waste, and they were gonna be under 2 pages each.
Yann: And those were very experimental. A lot of them, in fact, were little plays that were impossible to stage. So I was experimenting a lot, and then you sort of settle in the experiments that you think work, and you try to apply them.
Otto: And I think in Pi, it really worked, having the hundred chapters, the . . .
Otto: . . . the author’s note, the . . .
Yann: Oh, there was even more than that, initially.
Otto: [interposing] Yeah.
Yann: When I first submitted the manuscript, at one point—if you remember, Pi’s in the Pacific in his lifeboat, and they encounter—he and Richard Parker encounter the Frenchman. Well, I wanted to capture what it would be like for two blind people to be trying to—to make contact in lifeboats that they couldn’t control. So I had the text—the answers and questions—moving on the page, and crossing in an X shape. So: “Where are you?” “I’m here!” “Are you getting closer?” “I think I am,” and they sort of cross over like this, going beyond the margins. I thought it was mind-blowingly brilliant; my editor said it was terrible. [laughter]
Otto: It’s poetry!
Yann: It’s poetry, and she says that what happens is you’re falling out of the story, you’re saying, “Oh, the author thinks he’s really clever here.” And that’s the—even in—something that’s experimental and works, you have to balance carefully between telling the story and not drawing too much attention to the author and losing the story.
Otto: Moving on to your next work, it’s entitled Self; it came out in 1996. The narrator is born in 1963, studies philosophy at a small university in Ontario, and has Quebecois parents who work as Canadian diplomats.
Otto: This sounds a lot like you.
Otto: Why—why this—and then, from there, it changes, because the narrator becomes a woman and then becomes a man again. Why this blending of personal story and fiction and…?—and it’s been in a lot of—number of sessions here, the question of the lines between fiction and memoir.
Yann: Mm. I did that for very clear reasons. The novel Self has the appearance of an autobiography, but at its core is fictional. And what I was trying to do there is turn on its head what often happens with many novels, where it looks like fiction, but in fact once you read the author’s bio, you realize, in fact, there's a fictional core, so . . . and I think that’s—that’s perfectly valid, there’s nothing wrong with telling one’s own life story, but it’s a reduction, I think, of what fiction can do, if we just reduce it to disguised autobiography.
Now, some people have fascinating histories—that’s fine. But there’s more to fiction than just that, telling your own little tiny story. I think fiction is a grand form where ideas can be discussed, and ideas put forward, and—and so I wanted to invert that, have something feels like an autobiography, but at its core it’s fictional, and of course, in the fiction itself, the narrator does change sex; he—he’s traveling in Portugal, he’s backpacking in Portugal, and over the course of a few weeks, he metamorphosizes into a woman. There’s no operation, there’s no—he just—he slowly wakes up as a woman, and on his eighteenth birthday is a she, and he’s a woman for seven years, the same number of years that Tiresias was a woman in the Greek myth, and then he once again becomes a man. And so there, I obviously want to explore sexual identity . . .
Yann: . . . and also sexual orientation. I was interested in exploring that, too. Now, why was I wanting to explore those was a reflection of my own life. In university, I took Psych 101, fascinating course to take, and one of the things I came upon were these studies, where they said—for example, one of the American studies that showed that men interrupt women far more than women interrupt men. I said, “Ah, interesting.” And I happened to notice in the next few days that sure enough, I was interrupting women more than they were interrupting me. [laughter] And so I sort of woke up to feminism when I got to university.
Yann: And I was unhappy. No one likes—we don’t—remember like Michael Chabon says, you know, he’d like to think that he was a nice Jewish boy. We always—we all like to think that we are nice in some way, and we tend to rationalize away our flaws. So few of us in this room, I think, would openly admit, “Oh, I’m racist,” or “I’m sexist,” or “I’m an anti-Semite.” We rationalize by saying, “Oh, well, you know, it’s complicated,” and we rationalize it away.
At university I sort of realized, “No, wait a second, there are definitely strands of sexism in me.” Whereas I don’t recognize the strands of homophobia or of racism or of anti-Semitism, I could see ways in which I did not see women as equal to men, and that bothered me. It was—I wasn’t—as a moral person, I was not interested in thinking lesser of half the planet. So I said, well, how can I cure myself of this? [laughter] Well, to be the “Other.” And that’s a lesson that I think we can all take in all kinds of circumstances—so there’s Israelis being Palestinians, whites being blacks, etcetera.
So I thought, okay, I’ll write this novel where I will become a woman, and I’ll see what difference that makes. So I did some homework; I always do a lot of research. So I read a lot of feminist classics, you know, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique — what’s another academic that was really polemical for a while? The one who said, “There are no Mozarts for the same reason there are no Jack the Rippers, female Jack the Rippers”? Camille . . .
Yann: Uh, yeah, Camille Paglia. A whole bunch of books like that, sort of catching up on something that I should’ve known. And so that was—that was what launched me on this.
Otto: [interposing] Okay.
Yann: And it was a—it was a . . .
Otto: Tying into what you just—you were talking about how you thought, well, what would it like to be a woman, and last night you talked about with Pi, you thought, what would it be like to have faith?
Otto: One thing in—going from Pi to this work Self is I was surprised how in Pi, there’s really very little mention of sex, even—I, I—maybe if I missed it, within the discussion of the animals, the question of mating doesn’t really come up, you know; Pi, he is married, but we know very little about that, in Toronto. Why—why does—it seems like a huge shift from talking all about—the novel is, at times, quite graphic sexually–
Yann: Oh, it’s rude and it’s crude. Yeah.
Otto: So to go from Pi to this, it really struck me…
Yann: Well, I guess in each book, I’m trying to do something different. My approach to fiction is—the reason that I write the books that I write is I’m exploring some issue that interests me. So in the first book, I was exploring what stories can be, how can you tell stories, and stuff, and so I was interested in exploring sexual identity, sexual orientation identity. In Pi, I was interested in exploring something else: religion . . .
Otto: [interposing] Okay.
Yann: . . . faith. I just wasn’t interested in sex.
Yann: Yeah, and in a sense: been there, done that. [laughter]
Otto: One more question about Self—and this ties very closely to my own interest in French—and the narrator grows up in a French-speaking household, and in the textbook, as in the one short story I just spoke about, often the page is divided into French on the left hand and English on the right, and the narrator comments about his bilingual upbringing. I quote: “English became the language of my exact expression, but it expressed thoughts that somehow have always remained Latin.” And I guess you meant “Latin” in the terms of Mediterranean.
Otto: As such, are you a writer who chooses to write in French, but in English?
Yann: Hmm. Interesting question. I think my sensibilities are Latin, are Gallic, but I’ve come to write in English. I always went to school in English even though I speak French with my parents and I spent 9 years in France, in Paris. But I always went to school in English, so it’s in English that I learned how to think most subtly. I feel I’m in control of English. Not all the time, of course—mastering a language—it’s extraordinarily difficult, whereas in French I still sometimes feel that I’m searching for my words. It’s in English that I learned the most precise terms, and I feel I have a certain distance to English, maybe the way Beckett felt he had with French. He wrote initially in English and, you know, switched after, was it, Watt? Switched to writing directly into French, cause it gave him a certain distance.
I feel—because I didn’t grow up in English, I feel I don’t have gut reactions to it. I didn’t grow up—for example, I didn’t grow up reading the kinds of children’s books that you would’ve read in English. The ones I read were in French. Often we’d learn ones—our expressions at home, but the ones I learned were in French, not in English, so I don’t feel my English is tainted by regionalisms, by personal experience; it comes sort of as a foreign language, but it just happens to be one I speak better than any language. So I like that certain distance, that objectivity I feel I have, that sort of objective distance I have with English. And also, I like—I love writing in English. It’s an incredibly powerful, versatile language, whereas I find French more naturally falls into certain categories. There’s either very formal French, or there’s, you know argot, real slang. It’s a language that’s less resistance—resistant to change, I find.
Otto: I just have to know—you don’t have to comment on this, but there’s one passage just before the character, as the character is changing, and then it’s in French on the one side, English on the other, and it says in French, “My identity was linked to the French language,” and I thought, “Oh, I should read the English, really.” And it says, “My identity was linked to the English language”!
Yann: Yeah. [laughter]
Otto: It was a great joke for bilingual readers.
Yann: You know, there’s a Canadian writer names Mavis Gallant, and once in the seventies she underwent an operation—anesthetic, full—what is it called?—full anesthetic. And when she was coming out of it, she was in this haze, and she later on said that she forgot everything about herself, everything. The only things that she knew for certain: first of all, that she was a woman, she didn’t forget that, and that she was thinking in English. But where she was, her age, what her profession was, what her likes were, all that was all forgotten. There was only two poles to her identity in those hazy first moments after waking up: French and her sexual identity. That just sort of struck me.
Otto: Moving back to the lecture of last night, you talked about how—you started off your lecture saying that it was the first time that you toured a lot, Life of Pi came out, was a big success—you said to me that you—the touring and the speaking went on for two years?
Otto: And you said last night that this—last night’s event was the first time you were speaking to an audience with Mexicans . . .
Yann: [interposing] Yeah. Buenos dias. [laughs]
Otto: Meaning people—people had made—for—you suspect, the leap of faith. And that really struck me for having talked to so many different audiences, and I’d just like to read a quote here from a novelist who’s come here to Calvin before. His name is Ron Hansen, and he’s written very well about religion in very literary novels. And he said in this recent interview in Image: “It used to be you could write about—all that you could write about was God and man. Some think that if you do that now, you’re either breaching good taste, or you’ve lost your mind.”
Otto: And—and he’s talking of—about the trade publishing market, not about writing for a Catholic press, or . . .
Otto: . . . Protestant press, or Jewish press, but trying to get a literary work out, a serious one, to a broad public—do you feel—is that your experience with writing about religion for a large audience?
Yann: Well, Life of Pi was my first attempt, and it was a great success across the board. But I would say that what Ron Hansen was saying is generally true, but shouldn’t necessarily be surprising, I mean . . . there’s, you know, there’s a genre of gay fiction. Now, I don’t know too many straight people who’d care to read gay fiction. Some may be opposed to the gay lifestyle, but some would just be, “Well, I don’t mind it, but I’m just not gay, so I’m not interested in it.” Same thing with, I suppose, you know, Jewish fiction, intensely Jewish fiction, like, you know—Isaac Bashevis Singer, or S.Y. Agnon, the Israeli writer, who’s written extensively about the lost Jewish world of Eastern Europe.
You know, some people would not necessarily—I remember, for example, another example—William Faulkner. I tired of him after a while, because the American South simply didn’t interest me, even though it’s a metaphor, of course, it’s a very universal metaphor because he’s such a great writer. Frankly, the American South meant nothing to me, and so I think people will tend to read things that in some ways speak to them, so people who are not religious, or of a different religious persuasion, will not be particularly interested in reading Christian fiction. So for example, the Left Behind series—I don’t know what non-Christian would wanna read that. It wouldn’t speak to them.
Otto: I’ll try and hold my tongue.
Yann: Okay. [he and audience laugh] Really, they’re such good books. [laughter] You know, fiction is everything under the sun–you can’t read everything under the sun. Some things will appeal to you more than others.
Yann: So it’s not particularly surprising—another thing I’d say to that, add on, is the secular world has been good to the arts to the extent—to my mind—the nature of art is not moral, it’s testimonial. Art says—to write a work of art, to paint, to do music, is simply to bear witness to life, and say, “This is life.” And the freest art in that sense is delivered by a secular world. So you get works of art that are immoral, but you also get the ones that happen to be moral, too, but not—it’s coincidental.
So I’ll give an example: Picasso’s Guernica, that amazing mural that Picasso did after the bombing of the town of Guernica by the German Luftwaffe backing the Spanish fascists. So this town was bombed, civilians were killed—absolute outrage. Gratuitous massacre of civilians. He did this absolutely brilliant mural; it’s enormous—it’s in Spain now. Now there’s a work of art that’s mind-blowing in its brilliance, and it coincides with a very strong moral point: that you should not kill civilians; that’s a heinous act. It is not good because it’s moral. It is good because it’s good. That it coincides with a moral point is just that: a coincidence.
There are works of art, and I’ll switch to another example: pop songs. There are many, many pop songs that are just really good pop songs, but if you look at them, the lyrics are very immoral. [laughter] Doesn’t mean they’re not good pop songs. So the art and morality may coincide, but it’s not inherent to art. So there is a limitation to Christian fiction, too. As one of the participants in the Festival, Dan Taylor, joked to me last night, that a lot of, you know, Christian fiction, the problem is every time there’s a death, there’s Jesus in the room, [laughter] and that constance will sort of limit what you can do with death in the room. . .
Yann: . . . you know, when there’s death. So, if you are Christian and want to write fiction, you have to do it in a way that doesn’t reduce the scope of your fiction, cause otherwise, it’s reduced to proselytizing, which as I said, will appeal very strongly to people who like what you’re saying, but will restrict your appeal in a general way. Am I in trouble for saying all this?
Otto: Not at all! [laughter] No, I think someone like Hansen is really aiming at—he doesn’t just provide “this is the answer to it.” It’s very subtle.
Otto: Raises a question more than offering an immediate answer. But moving—somewhat related question–
Yann: [interposing] Let me just say, I had another thought—one—this is in a pop song, once again—remember Paul Simon’s “Mrs. Robinson”?
Yann: I remember reading an interview where Paul Simon said he was very proud of the fact that he could mention Jesus in a song and it was acceptable. So it goes, you know, “Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson, Jesus loves you more than you will know.” So there’s a nice reference to Jesus in a context that anyone could take. A Hindu, a Jew, a secular, and atheist—love that song, and it’s a very moving song. And there’s this little religious message, that is given in a way that’s very open and is not judgmental. Sorry.
Otto: No problem. While talking about a form of something that is immoral, and talking about evil and violence and cruelty in your works, there are times in the novel when—very terrible—in your novels where very terrible things happen; in Self, the main character is raped. It’s a terrible scene, and in Pi, Pi’s parents and brother die, and it seems like it happens—it’s an accident, in that case. And also in Self, the main character, his parents die, also in an accident. And so on the one hand there are brutal human cruelty, acts of human cruelty, and then sort of this random bad luck.
Yann: Mm. Mm-hmm.
Otto: The one thing I’m not—I’m not clear of in your writing is, where do you see that cruelty coming from? Is it—is that just from humans making bad choices?
Yann: Oh, that’s a big question. Well, I’ll respond just to the question of evil. To my mind, most art starts out of a sense of injustice, of evil, of cruelty. Now whether it’s moral evil intended by human beings, or, in a sense, accidental evil—evil where there’s no clear intent—that’s what is most disturbing. The most disturbing thing I’ve seen in life—and this is a banality, here, what I’m saying—is evil. Evil is profoundly upsetting. Acts of violence. You know, when it’s on a newspaper or in the screen you can get some distance from it. But when you actually witness acts of violence, it is so profoundly disturbing, and I think—and we are the ultimate evil, of course. . . [unintelligible] a moral evil, is our own death. We must, we—so, in a lot of my writing, I’m trying to slowly come to understanding and trying to live with it. Cause I can live with goodness. It’s easy to live with good weather, and milk, and chocolate ice cream, and stuff like that.
Otto: And puppy dogs.
Yann: Exactly. Now, it’s evil that is hard to live with, and yet we have to.
Otto: But how—where do you see—and here we are at Calvin College, so where do you see this evil coming from, then? Is it from human selfishness, or is it something somehow original?
Yann: Okay. [laughter] I don’t see it as original; I see evil as the absence of goodness. On the personal level, and on the grand theistic level. I don’t believe in the devil; I believe in the absence of God. And that absence is willed so that we must make our own decisions for ourselves. So . . .
Otto: And I think it’s in Pi, you talk about the founding principle of—I’m quoting: “The founding principle of life is love.”
Otto: So then—what is the opposite, then? Rejecting that love?
Yann: Well, the opposite would be the absence of love. And when you love, you know, when you love—to love is not to control. To love is ultimately to let go, so God loves us and lets go. And let—and hopes we come towards him, but if we don’t, he’ll still be there, but we will wander and get lost in evil ways. And on a personal level, I do believe that evil—there are people who, I mean—talking in the wide range of normal behavior; I’m not talking of certified psychopaths . . .
Yann: . . . people who are biochemically deranged and have zero capacity for empathy. You know, the mass murderers of our world. Doesn’t apply to that. Those are beyond—but in that broad range of normal behavior, I do believe that early absence of goodness breeds further absence of goodness, until a character is set, and that character has difficulty doing good—which speaks for the incredible importance of, you know, early childhood schooling, proper care and stuff like that; safe home environment and stuff like that. So on a very basic human level, I don’t, I mean, I suppose just as there are people who are more naturally gregarious, and others more shy—I suppose there are individuals who are more naturally good, and some more naturally selfish. But those are all susceptible to change and don’t really qualify as evil. Grand evil, I think, is the absence of goodness, and as I said, on a theological level, I don’t actually believe in an antethical—antithetical entity to God that incarnates evil. I just believe in the absence of God.
Otto: Last night you spoke about the Life of Pi and the two narratives . . .
Yann: [interposing] No “the” . . .
Otto: [interposing] Ugh, did I do that? but–
Yann: [interposing] You said “the Life of Pi” [laughs]. That’s it!
Otto: That was just to make you all . . . just watch out. Oh, well, why do we talk about—why is that so important to you?
Yann: Well, to me Life of Pi is about multiplicity; is about the many interpretations one can make of life, and “the” is a definite article; it implies one life of Pi. So I didn’t want that, so I thought I’d use an indefinite article, A Life of Pi. That seemed kind of odd, A Life of Pi. So then I thought well, I’ll just dispense with articles and just call it Life of Pi.
Otto: Well, thinking of multiplicities in the—the book you say, “In the book.” [Martel and audience laugh]
Yann: That’s it, for the rest of the interview, no more definite articles. [laughter]
Otto: In book, you talk about [laughter]—you talk about—that the narrative with the animals is the better story, and once you accept that better story, so it goes with God, that you can make that leap of faith.
Otto: Fine. I’m an atheist, agnostic, I’m ready to make that leap—where do I leap to? Do I go the route of Pi and, you know, do a mishmash of different religions, or . . .
Yann: I qualify by saying, I don’t think it’s a mishmash–
Otto: [interposing] Or–
Yann: [interposing] he practices three separate religions quite separately; he doesn’t mix them.
Otto: [interposing] Okay.
Yann: Well, it’s not for me to say, but I would—well, it’s for each person to decide where they make that leap of faith, and why and how they make that leap of faith I think will most likely be reflected by their background. In terms of religious leaps of faith, often we’ll, you know, either the choice is to leap towards what is most familiar—so in the West, in the United States, it would most likely be Christianity—but, you know, if you were brought up with, you know, the kinds of Catholic priests that the Pope now is condemning, and rightly so, it’s unlikely you’ll want to return to Catholicism. In fact, the most bitterly anti-Catholic people I’ve met have been former—lapsed Catholics.
Yann: There, you might therefore go to more liberal—to, one of the, you know, one of the Protestant faiths. But if you can’t stand Christianity at all, you know, Buddhism is very popular in the last few decades. I don’t know, you know, I think it’s a question that each person must answer. I certainly don’t believe any—I certainly believe religions are better than cults, but in my heart I—having spent time in India and in Muslim countries, I cannot in good conscience say to 3 billion people, “You’re all wrong.”
Otto: Yeah. You mentioned that last night.
Yann: [interposing] Yeah.
Otto: And I really liked how you explained how you started to write the novel, that you were open to discovering the religions and started writing the book thinking what it would be like, as I said already, to be a person of faith. And if I may ask, where are you on that journey, now?
Yann: Oh, still on it. You know, the success of Life of Pi has unfortunately disrupted my regular religious practice. I was going to church every week . . . With Pi I was traveling around so much, it was quite disruptive, so for a couple of years I wasn’t going to church anymore, but now in Saskatoon, Alice and I go to church. We—I initially was—being French-Canadian, being Quebecois, I’m ethnically, I suppose, a Catholic. Now, my parents, as I said last night, long ago left the church, but still in the distant background, that’s kind of what I should’ve been familiar with. Unfortunately, I—and so there’s a certain grandeur to Catholicism that I like. It has made many mistakes cause of that, but there is a grandeur to it that is quite magnificent. There is a—a heartfeltly—is that word?—a Mass conducted with real passion is an extraordinarily beautiful thing to behold, to participate in.
However—and here I’ll maybe get into trouble—Canada—and I’m very proud to say this—is one of 4 countries in the world that has legalized gay marriage, and after that happened in Canada, the Catholic Church were instructed on one given Sunday to preach on how that was an offense against God, and that marriage should only be the union of a man and a woman. And we happen, Alice and I, to be in Vancouver and to have gone to a church, and we didn’t realize, and the priest delivered that. Now, they wrap it up in terms that do not seem prejudicial and condemnatory, but they are, and I was profoundly offended, so I didn’t want to go back. So now we go to an Anglican church.
So that’s my practice, and aside from that organized aspect of it, it’s part of my life now. The idea that all this makes sense is what I believe, and that ultimately, love is the great force blowing through this universe, and in a way we can’t understand, it all makes sense, including appalling evil; even—including the killing of children and stuff like that—we are looking at one tiny portion of the picture, and if we could look at the whole picture, it would suddenly make sense. Now, how that works itself out intellectually, I’m not entirely sure, but I don’t care. I can’t understand that great plan because I only have such a small mind.
Otto: I’d like to move on to your current project, which–
Yann: [interposing] Mm-hmm.
Otto: you finished, and the title, you told me is, “A Twentieth Century Shirt,” not “The” or “Twentieth Century Shirt” [laughter]—get it right. [laughter] And it will come out next year, and the topic is the Holocaust. But what is extremely intriguing is that you will not set it in the exact time frame of the thirties and forties, but that you’re pulling it out and telling it in a different format. Is it, then, a type of allegory, or parable?
Yann: Yeah, I suppose it’s an allegory. It’s two things: it’s a novel and it’s an essay, so in a sense it’s two books, and they’ll be published—if I can overcome the objections of my publisher—in the same book, but back-to-back upside down, so what’s called a flip book. So here’s the novel, you flip it over, here’s the essay. So if you flip through it like this, eventually you’ll get pages upside down cause you’re looking at the other one. The reason I’m doing that is I’m trying by two different means to explore the same topic, which is the Holocaust.
The novel is—once again will be using animals, a monkey and a donkey, but this time anthropomorphized; they’ll be speaking English. And the essay is more an essay, a bit of nonfiction where I discuss—and what I’m really interested in is looking at representations of the Holocaust, cause what I—I’ve always been interested in the Holocaust. I’m not Jewish, but when you grow up and you start learning about history, many events fall into place; they’re part of the puzzle, and the puzzle starts forming a picture. The Holocaust stands apart as a historical event.
You know, you start reading about one war; well, they’re all the same, you just change the different characters, the different—the opponents are different, but the dynamic of a war is always the same, and that’s why they have such banal names, you know, World War I, World War II. I mean, not even lettering, just numbering them. In that learning of history, the Holocaust stands apart. It remains undigested. So it always struck me; it always stayed with me, and not for the obvious political reasons of, you know, it was terrible what was done by the Germans to the Jews: that’s fairly obvious.
I was more interested when I—as I matured into, “How do I react to this as an artist?” ‘Cause the traditional reaction of the artist is to take great evil, or to take any historical event and turn it into art. I gave the example of Picasso, Guernica. Obviously, Guernica is not a direct representation of what happened, you know. It’s a very weird-looking painting. It doesn’t look at all like some basement in Guernica might have looked like. It’s an artistic representation of it that captures the essence of it. So art has traditionally been very good at that: taking history and giving us a representation, that if it’s good, sticks with us, and in a sense becomes the event.
What struck me about the Holocaust is unlike any other historical event—so far—it has been represented by a single school of representation, which is historical realism. So most any novel on the Holocaust is not really a novel. It’s a very, very thinly disguised piece of nonfiction. So, you know, you read Night by Elie Wiesel and you read Elie Wiesel’s biography at that time, and they coincide, and where they don’t, the author gets in trouble. So Elie Wiesel got—you know, there was puzzlement at the fact that the character—I forget this, now, but–the character is 15, and he was 16 when he got to Auschwitz. So, “Hmm. Why the discrepancy?” As if a writer of fiction has to account for details in his work in the Holocaust section we have to. And the Holocaust—representations of the Holocaust are overwhelmingly represented by nonfiction: the memoir, the journal, the history of, the chronology. That’s how we see the Holocaust. There’s nothing wrong with that. These—you know, Primo Levi, If This is a Man, Survival in Auschwitz [US title] is an absolutely brilliant book a capturing the atrocity the Germans perpetrated under the Nazis.
But my—my concern as an artist is, why is this event so narrowly represented? Even if it’s very well represented, is there a problem with representing it so narrowly? Whereas history—another great momentous historical event: war. Wars were represented in any number of ways, right? We have war comedies, war romances, thrillers, in addition to the documentaries; we have the war propagandas—all of those are produced and taken in, and I’ve never heard of a veteran’s group complaining of a movie trivializing war. In fact, it’s amazing how it’s taken 50 years before in cinema we have really accurate representations of war. I’m thinking of Saving Private Ryan by Spielberg, with his amazing representation of the landing at D-Day. Up til now, we get, you know, the feed has usually been the John Wayne kind of propaganda—which serves its purpose!
It’s interesting how war is represented in any which way, and we all accept that, and why’s that? Cause we understand that the various things we’re getting, whether they be poems, movies, plays, novels, are representations, are takes on war, and it’s in sifting through all those representations that we get to our sense of what war is like. With the Holocaust, we get only a single kind of representation, and the danger with that is if you stick to only one kind of representation, if any problems appear with that representation, it’ll affect its event. Whereas, you know, if a war novel is inaccurate, people say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter, there’s other war novels, there’s other–” You know. If your only representation of an event is flawed, then that’s flawing the event itself.
Otto: I know you like Orwell’s Animal Farm —
Yann: [interposing] Yeah–
Otto: [interposing] Is—is that—what–
Yann: [interposing] Yeah, Animal Farm’s a good example of someone taking history, transforming it to get its essence. So you have Animal Farm set on a farm, and it’s an allegory on what Stalin did to Russia. It’s a brilliant digesting of history to get its essence, so that you have, with Animal Farm, history in a suitcase. You open up Animal Farm and you get the essence of what happened to Russians under Stalin. You don’t need to know Stalin, you don’t need to know Russian history; you get to the essence of it. A generation of schoolchildren now will understand how an ideal can be perverted.
With the Holocaust, we haven’t done that. As I said, we have these literal historical representations. We have nothing else. So, we have no Holocaust westerns. We certainly don’t have Holocaust comedies. Now people will say, “Well, of course not. It’s a horrible event.” Of course it’s a horrible event! So was war. [The] Second World War cost the lives of 22 million soldiers and civilians on the Allied side alone, omitting the Jewish deaths. 22 million! So we’re forgetting the Axis deaths. I mean . . . you know, someone who’s being blown to bits by a bomb on an individual level suffers as much as anyone can suffer. And yet, as I said, we allow ourselves all kinds of representations with war.
So in the essay I’m discussing that—various representations of the Holocaust, the problems with limiting our representations, and in the novel, I’m trying a non-literal representation of the Holocaust. So to try to get to its essence without there being the usual suspects of Germans, Jews, camps, the usual—it’s amazing it’s a—I did a lot of research in it, and I gave up. I did less research on this one than I did for Life of Pi, and I guess I’ll have to apologize for what I say right away—but one of the reasons I stopped was sheer boredom. I just could no longer read stories that were—had the same narrative arc of an antebellum, you know, good life, and then suddenly, 33, the same figures, names, characters, places would come over and over and over, and how many stories can you read about a good-natured family that ends up on a train, ends up in a hellish camp? Even though it’s completely historically accurate, at one point you gotta try to tell it in a different way, do different things with it. So that’s what I’m trying in the novel.
Otto: I’d like to leave some time for questions.
Otto: I’m just gonna ask one more. It’s quite a change from your project on the Holocaust. You spoke last night of your pro—what you’re doing—your book club of two with the prime minister, Stephen Harper, and for those of you who weren’t there, Yann has been sending, every two weeks, a book, 200 pages or under that and–
Yann: To the Prime Minister of Canada.
Otto: To the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper and each novel or play or collection of poetry is accompanied by a letter which introduces the work and these letters are extr—they’re very amusing.
Otto: Very funny, and the link is on the Festival website, and I encourage you to go there, but the title of—the address is www.whatisstephenharperreading.ca.
Yann: Or .com, doesn’t matter.
Otto: .com as well?
Yann: Yeah, I got both.
Otto: I—go look at it. But just—let’s say there’s a general election [that] comes up, and you receive, on official letterhead, Sussex Drive, you receive a handwritten letter, handwritten, and it says, “Dear Mr. Martel, Would have written earlier, but I’ve been super busy.” [Martel laughs] “I just love the books! They have changed my life.” [audience laughs] “Thanks, Steve.” And then “P.S. Vote for me.”
Yann: Yeah. [laughs with audience]
Otto: So—another way: getting back to Mary Gordon at the beginning of the Festival, can literature or fiction change people?
Yann: I think I can . . . you know, actually, it’s a very deep question you’re asking, is what does art do. Well, one can’t argue that art makes a person better, because if that were the case, the Nazis, for example . . .
Yann: . . . Who claimed to love music and love art would be better than what they were. And I think the answer to that question goes to what I said about how art in fact is not moral but testimonial. So you read art—you can read art that reflects any point of view that you want. So I don’t think art makes us better; what it does do, however—and its effect is very subtle—is increase our experience of life. You read a book, you’ve lived an extra life, the life of those characters that that author has brought to life. So you read ten books, you’ve had one extra life of a cat, you know, you live longer than a cat. So it increase—so you read a novel—I don’t know, set in Korea in the 14th century.
Or here, an example: Shōgun. Remember—38 year—James Clavell, Shōgun was a massive success. After that, a whole slew of people, a whole generation of people knew a lot more about medieval Japan. Who would think? Well, because of that, if you have more experience of life, you vicariously acquire experience of evil and good, of forgiveness and anger, and that hopefully will give you a greater basis to draw upon when you yourself are challenged.
So I find people who don’t read fiction, don’t read art, tend to be more narrow in their responses to life. They cling to a few things, and they are narrower. So I think—by living life, in a sense it’s kind of like traveling. It’s imaginative traveling, it increases your experience of life. But it depends how you read things, of course, too. So that’s why—the pro-tip with the Prime Minister is—it’s kind of a dodgy one. I have been accused of being elitist– who am I to tell him what to read— all of which is fair. It’s not for me to tell anyone what they should read, but my defense f—in this case, once someone has power over me—if I’m allowed to ask about his finances, you know, “Where are your investments, Mr. Prime Minister? Have you paid your taxes?” Which I would never ask of you or anyone here, it’s none of my business; but if you had power over me, yes, I would be entitled, “Have you cheated on your taxes?” I think at that point, if someone has power over me, to some extent, yes, their imagination is accountable to me, because if Stephen Harper has not read any of the books that I’ve sent him so far, which is 27, [laughter] or books like it—like it! If he has read no fiction whatsoever, my question is, how does he know anything about life? How does he experience life? Does he only trust what he has literally seen with his eyes, the few books of nonfiction, you know, political history, or political economy he’s read, and what he sees on television? Is that the only way he’s acquired his experience of life?
Otto: Is that a rhetorical question?
Yann: It’s hard–
Otto: [interposing] Sorry–
Yann: I wonder that, and if he ha—and if he hasn’t that experience, then I’m afraid it’s scary that he should have power over me.
Q & A
Otto: We have—just have very little time, maybe for one or two questions?
Yann: Yeah, absolutely.
Otto: So whoever—
Chad: [00:54:00] Hey, it’s Chad again. I’m going to reiterate some of the questions asked of Yann Martel by the audience who weren’t miced.
Otto: Over there in blue?
Chad: What you are trying to do with your new book coming out is bring new life to a historical event by telling it in a new way. But people reading the book aren’t going to know that, necessarily. Do you have any fear that people are just going to see it and say, “Oh that’s just another Holocaust book,” and not buy it?
Yann: Well, the essay explicitly discusses the Holocaust and representations of it. Now, if my editor—my publishers don’t wanna do this, they just want to publish the novel. They’re afraid the essay will weigh down the novel. But if it just comes out as a novel . . . that’s fine, you don’t—you can’t hit people on the head. I mean, the novel should, in the reading of it, be fairly clear that it’s dealing with a momentous event. Now, is it explicitly clear that it’s the Holocaust, the massacre of the Jews, as opposed to the massacre of the Tutsis in Rwanda, or the massacre of the Armenians by the Turks? No. In my mind, it’s the Holocaust, but if someone takes it as a discussion of another mass murder, so be it.
Otto: There was someone else in blue with a hand—yes, go ahead.
Chad: Maybe a reason why most interpretations of the Holocaust are so realistic is because the almost unspeakable evil of the Holocaust might not be fully captured with language?
Yann: Yeah, but that’s inevitable. Language and experience—we delude ourselves at leng—any—the most banal experience cannot be fully captured by language, let alone momentous ones. Language is a representation of a reality that will always go beyond it. So it’s not just the Holocaust that is beyond representation in that sense, but war, disease, death, aging—we have no choice but to try to represent it. Even the—even the historical realists when—even Primo Levi was just one man, one history—that’s all we got. It’s a peephole onto something. If we don’t have that peephole, it’s vanished, it’s gone. So we have to represent it, hoping that we somehow get the essence of it.
Now of course we won’t get the full reality, nor would we want it, frankly. ‘Cause the time is always passing, it’s a—it’s a river rushing by. What we need are representations that get to its essence, and the standard ones we get do do that, but as I said, they hit the nail so hard in the same fashion that I think there’s a level of distortion taking place because of that. There’s a certain fatigue setting in. What the young man asked before, and my [unintelligible] always say Holocaust they’re like—that’s exactly what happens with Holocaust fiction now. Periodically, books—Holocaust books, I’ve noticed, are either completely obscure, you’ve never heard of them, or they’re big bestsellers. So recently, a few years ago there was the French one, Suite Française, which isn’t really a Holocaust one but she happened to have died in the Holocaust. A few years ago, I Shall Bear Witness was sort of big. That’s a diary. But they either make it big, like Life is Beautiful, or The Piano Man — is that what it was called, the Polanski book?—they make it big or they vanish.
Otto: The Pianist.
Yann: The Pianist, yeah. By Polanski. I just blanked out why I was saying that, sorry . . . anyways, sorry, maybe I’ll come back to it, sorry.
Otto: I don’t know if we want to end on that, but. Well I wanted–
Yann: [interposing] No. One more question [laughter] [unintelligible] maybe.
Otto: [interposing] One more question.
Yann: Yes, you.
Chad: You bring up the subject of three religions, do you cast this in any way the way Samuel Huntington does? Referring to the Clash of Civilizations.
Yann: Oh! If you wanna hate someone, you can find any number of excuses. So I think Osama bin Laden is not a Muslim. He’s just a man who hates, and he uses Islam as his tool. There’s nothing in the Qur’an that calls for the killing of innocents. Nothing. Just as there’s nothing in the Bible that calls for the killing of innocents. These are people who kidnap texts that are certainly not neutral, but are not texts that call for the doing of evil. I don’t think it’s a clash of religions, therefore. Clash of Civilizations—yes, that sounds too—too grand. I think the reality is more mundane.
You know, one thing I’ve discovered in all my travels is this planet is so big. And the electronic technology gives us the illusion that it’s a global village. It’s not, and I’ll give you one—in my experience, one tiny little experience of that: when I went to Israel—Israel’s all over the news, all the time. We all—those of us who read newspapers or are news junkies, we feel a great familiarity with Israel, don’t we? We feel we know the characters, the settings, the geography, the events, and all that—but the essential is missing, and you only get that when you go there, when you start smelling the Israeli air, walking its streets, seeing the people. That social dynamic that you can only get when you’re there in reality—then you start understanding where they’re coming from, where they’re going. So it’s only being there that you can really get the experience of things, so Clash of Civilizations sounds too much like a chess board, I feel. I think it’s a more mundane, subtle, uncontrollable reality.
Thank you very much for coming.
Otto: Yes. [applause]
Yann: And thank you, Otto.
Otto: Thank you, Yann. It was a pleasure.
Chad: [00:59:44] Merci to the brilliant Yann Martel and to his assiduous interviewer, Otto Selles.
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