Yann Martel

Interview by Val Litwin / Illustration by Tomislav Torjanac

Hobo #12 – Vancouver, April 2010. Beneath a guilt-framed oil painting of Venice, I had a chance to riff with the intensely thoughtful Yann Martel in The Wedgewood hotel. Known more widely as the hand that wrote Life of Pi, Martel’s new novel Beatrice and Virgil is drawing both praise and vitriol. The Globe and Mail loved his metafiction about the Holocaust – calling it “ingenious” – but one blogger tapped out 2400 words about why it’s the worst book of the decade. Yann likes the reaction. His hair is corkscrewing in all directions; an indication of the myriad tracks our conversation will soon take. A starched blue collar is pushing out of a v-neck sweater. Yann orders a hot chocolate and, leaning on a suede elbow pad, spoons at it like a bowl of soup.

Val Litwin. — We’ll maybe say a few words here and find out if this recorder is working.
Yann Martel. — Yeah. I’m Yann Martel and I’m here to do an interview. Is this Hobo? What is Hobo? I think I’ve seen it actually.  Is it a big glossy magazine?

— Yes it is.
— Yes, I’ve seen it before.

— So you’re on a Canadian literary rock tour from coast to coast. Do you enjoy the tours and being on the road?
— Yes, well it’s very isolating writing a book. So to break out of that and travel is nice. The hardest part is I have a son; I have a nine-month-old baby. I don’t mind meeting readers, though; it’s interesting to interact with them.

— What are the readers saying, how would you characterize the response to Beatrice and Virgil?
— Well personally the ones that I’ve had have been extremely positive. More formally, the reviews in the United States have been very divided: reviewers have either hated it or loved it. And you see that on the internet too – some people hate it and go to town on it and others really like it. You’ll love it or hate it which is better than being indifferent to it, which is the worst reaction possible. It’s obviously pushing some buttons and perhaps some buttons need to be pushed.

— I’ve been reading the reviews and reactions online, The Globe and Mail gave you a glowing review. But even the people who don’t like it still have a lot to say.
— There’s a guy on the internet called Edward Champion. He writes 2400 words and calls it the worst book of the decade.

— You’re kidding.
— …The worst book of the decade. Yeah, so it’s interesting.  People spending that much energy – the book is clearly having an effect.

— I’d love to hear your thoughts on this idea that, to quote your book: “Words are just muddy toads trying to describe sprites in the field”.  I’m sure I’ve bastardized the quote.
— No that’s pretty good.  But the key line is the next part: “…but they’re all we have”. The best representation of the past is a great novel. But that still pales in comparison to the actual reality.  There’s nothing more vivid than where we are right now.  To describe you, and this room and that painting – that’s obviously Venice – you have to use a lot of words and hope that the reader knows Venice, knows about bridges that have buildings on them. Words are “muddy toads” but at least they’re looking, they’re observing. Words have trouble capturing reality, but what they do have (what reality itself doesn’t have) is a certain level of comprehension, a certain level of perspective. Words have difficulty capturing reality, but they’re often very good at giving an opinion on that reality. Which is why I grow tiresome of hearing about how the Holocaust is inexpressible, because it’s not helping. If you really think that then shut up. But will that help? Is silence better than speaking? I don’t think so.  Not when we’re trying to remember a historical event.

— It’s funny that you mentioned the painting behind me. When I was reading the six-page description of the pear at one point in your book, it reminded me of a Dutch master painting. The minute rendering of the object through words, the visceral level of description. That worked for me as a reader: it was transcendent.  It would be crude to say words can get us eighty or ninety percent of the way toward the experience – but how sufficient are words in getting us to the real thing?
— I think it depends what the reader brings to it.  If a novel is great it is because you brought a greatness to it. You involved yourself to the extent that it made you feel great things. Well that’s not just the words, they’re just passive on the page – it’s the interaction. It also depends how good the writer is at arranging things. A great poem meeting a sensitive reader you would get quite high a percentage, but a great poem to a kid in grade eight who’s just reading it because he has to it would be much lower. Reality isn’t just what is. Subjectivity affects the objectivity of reality. It’s not the experience itself but how you take it – and words play a part in that; art plays a part in that.


— Did you read Man’s Search For Meaning?
— Yeah, Viktor Frankl.

— That book seems like a relevant departure point for this idea of creating meaning, it being up to the individual, and I wonder how much responsibility do we place on the art to stimulate the feeling in the individual? In your book you try different ways of reaching that feeling of transcendence, or “stillness” as you call it. It reminded me of Siddhartha’s search for enlightenment: he tried starving himself in the jungle, he tried serving his fellow man, he attempted these different pathways. Was it because he did walk down all those paths that he was able to achieve enlightenment?
— Some paths will work for you and others wont. It’s by going through them that you discover that. What I liked about the mention of Siddhartha is that Buddhist notion of passionate detachment – that you have to throw yourself at life, but with the knowledge that you have to let go. But in terms of transcendence, there are many paths to it – and that’s perhaps why this book has divided people. Obviously some do not see transcendence in terms of the Holocaust in the way that I’m talking about it and others do. And those who do, different parts of the book will work for them – they might see this as a first step and the next one they’ll do on their own. And to me that’s fine: to me art isn’t an answer, it’s a question. And that’s why the negative reviews haven’t bothered me – they’re still in dialogue with what I’m saying.

— Have you had a response from a Holocaust survivor?
— No, but I would expect a man or woman who’s been through that doesn’t need metaphors, doesn’t need allegory. Just as a Gulag survivor wouldn’t like Animal Farm. Someone who’s been through an experience doesn’t need metaphor or allegory. So my book mainly addresses people who weren’t directly involved, who don’t have a family or social link. By getting people to experience these scenarios I create in the book, I’m attempting to have the reader place themselves in a holocaustal place.

— In the center of “the horrors”, as you call it.
— And that makes it contemporary. It makes it right here right now: what would you do? And by thinking in that way you increase your empathy, you hopefully increase your understanding. The [scenario] that might speak to a Holocaust survivor might be the one about humor. If you’re at a table and the people sitting next to you make a joke and you realize the joke is about your suffering – well, how do you react? I imagine most people would say they’d be angry. The essence of humor is that it be irreverent, which can hurt someone who feels reverence for something.  But it’s still very good at debunking things, popping the balloon of pomposity and by revivifying your attitude toward something. I’ll give you an example from Sarah Silverman, an American Jewish comic. Her joke was: “I hate Nazis, they’re fucking assholes, but they sure are cute when they’re babies.” If you look at that joke it presupposes historical knowledge; it’s a historical capsule. I thought her joke was very clever because it makes you ask yourself: what did go wrong with those beautiful babies? Imagine a little blonde, blue-eyed boy, a little Gunther, who would have been four years old in 1920. Well, what happened to him fourteen years later that tuned him into an SS Guard? What went wrong with that baby? So, of course, Nazis are cute as babies – because babies are universal, they’re innocent. But a survivor might not find that funny at all and say, “I lost my entire family”. But it’s not addressed at him. To a non-survivor it is kind of funny, after all, Sarah Silverman did it professionally and got some laughs. That’s useful. There’s an afterglow in the listener: “What did go wrong?” All these tools of irony have a role to play. The more representations we have the more likely we are to echo the actual core event that is now past.

— You were saying in another interview that the Holocaust is a “satanic mirror” and the capital of the Holocaust is actually the human heart – to tie it to any time or specific place would be foolish because it exists everywhere. So as artists we have a responsibility to engage constantly.
— As an event it happened only once but the paths to it are multiple and still exist today.

— So how are we doing?
— I think we’re doing very well, but it depends where. One of the lessons of the Holocaust is radical tolerance and that’s tough to actually live.  But we’re making great strides in Canada. A triumph of Canadian society is the legalization of gay marriage. Now you can be Mr. and Mr. or Mrs. and Mrs. or Mr. and Mrs. – to me that’s great. But then I was just reading today, in B.C. you have this polygamist Mormon group and that rankles everyone because in our secular world, we don’t feel religious freedom applies here, and because it’s polygamy – one man with many wives – that irks our feminist sensibility. We’re not letting it be covered by religious freedom, which to me is a tough question because we’ve legalized gay marriage and to me the pretty obvious step next is multiple marriages – polygamy and polyandry. I mean, what if a woman is fifty-five and has a husband of sixty-seven whom she loves but who’s not that great in bed anymore. The woman has this thirty-two year old who’s like a tiger and she actually loves him and the older man likes him too because he plays golf with him. The older man has let go of matters of the flesh and this young man wants to make his way in life but he’s young and the older couple have wealth – what if they all want to get married? And who’s to say that’s unacceptable?

— Maybe I can bridge to the U.S. for a second. In a country where gay marriage isn’t legal – the president of that country just wrote you a letter.  Barak wrote to say how much he and his daughters enjoyed Life of Pi. What did he say?
— You can see it online. It’s a delightful letter; it’s a handwritten note. “My daughter and I just finished reading Life of Pi together. Both of us agreed we prefer the story with animals. It is a lovely book – an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling”. It blew me away. He’s obviously very busy but he still reads and took the time to send a handwritten note. I was moved. The contrast with Stephen Harper couldn’t be starker. I’ve sent him so far over fifty books and nothing…

— [Laughs] And nothing, not a peep?
— [Laughs] Nothing. Well, five letters from his office. A stark contrast.

— Should we be worried about anywhere else on the planet?
— China is a train wreck about to happen. There is no way a country can sustain that level of economic development and discrepancy between the rich and the poor. China has the greatest gender discrepancy in the history of humanity – there’s never been a society with such a big gap between the number of boys and girls. So you’re going to have hundreds and hundreds of thousands of young men with no social future. They might be able to go to prostitutes but they cannot get married so is that a recipe for disaster? If you don’t have a family you have no future.

— There’s an interesting movement happening in China right now with music, especially rock and roll. There’s a huge renaissance, well maybe not a renaissance because rock was probably never huge there – but there are some big bands breaking out. They’ve come to New York and are selling out. And they’re singing in Chinese.
— Art they’ll tolerate if it suits them. They’re very clever, they’re also terrified – the reason it’s a train wreck is because their survival as a regime is predicated on economic growth. They’ve raised people’s expectations so high that if doesn’t keep being achievable for the population there’s going to be chaos. And also they’re destroying the planet. Whatever we do to fight climate change here is going to be totally negated by what’s happening in China.

— Is your book being translated into Chinese? Will you be doing a tour over there?
— I want to spend time with my nine month old, but I’d love to go – I’ve never been to China. I’m fascinated by it. You know these new elements they’re discovering that last one billionth of a second then fall apart? To me, China is like that. You can’t have that level of wealth and economic freedom with so little political freedom. I’m intrigued. I want to go and see it.

— One or two last wild card questions: What are you reading now?
— Since Life of Pi, publishers send me all kinds of books about animals.  I’ve been reading [José] Saramago’s new book called, The Elephants Journey. It’s not out yet. And a book by Tom French, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, who’s written a book about the life of a zoo – the animals, its keepers and its politics. My wife, Alice Kuiper, her book is coming out. I’ve just finished reading that.  It’s called The Worst Thing She Ever Did.

— Your books often contain violence and elements of horror. Was there ever an event in your life similar to what’s happened to any of your protagonists?
— No, no. I’ve been lucky like that. I write about things that upset me. I’m not going to write about how I like raisins in the morning, or grapefruits.

— But you’ll write about pears…
— [laughs] True, good point. No, you become an artist, I think, because you’re slightly uncomfortable about things. I write about things that disturb me so they can become less disturbing.

— Bearing witness to violence changes your chemical mix. I think the victory of Beatrice and Virgil is you feel that chemical reaction at both ends of the spectrum, for both the beauty and the horror.
— Art, like religion, if you take it seriously they increase your empathy.  Someone who is genuinely religious feels for the other, not just Jesus, but everyone. Art does the same thing. Because I’ve been a writer for twenty-five years, because I take art seriously – I try to put myself in the skin of the other. Art is about exploring the other and increasing your empathy. Once you’re in the attitude of empathy you don’t need to have lived something. You can intuit your way into it.

— That was excellent, thank you. I hope the hot chocolate was up to par.
— It was quite good actually. It was made with real milk.