Yann Martel brushes off the haters

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Yann Martel: catnip for the bibliophile

Last night, Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi, and the new spectacularly panned follow up effort Beatrice and Virgil, took the stage at Kabuki Sundance Theater to speak with fellow writer Laura Fraser.

One can almost hear the semi colons when Martell speaks. “What makes life go well is not just external success; it’s how you feel about it.” It’s well and good that he seems relatively undisturbed by reviews of his work, because otherwise he might be a little ruffled these days; despite the phenomenal triumph of Life of Pi, the New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani heads up a long list of unimpressed critics, calling the new book “disappointing and often perverse.”

Seen onstage, Martel seems to be too engaged with philosophical conquesting to bog down in such matters.

An exotic biography (born in Spain!  Foreign service parents raised him in Costa Rica, France, and Mexico! Employed as a security guard and tree planter before coming to writing full time!) has left Martel with a desire to express the totality of human existence through the simplest narrative possible. All the better to communicate with the rest of the world, something which the author finds his “duty,” albeit a grand one. “It’s no easy fate,” to be endowed with such literary responsibility, he sighs.

Let’s leave aside, for a moment, the slings and arrows of outrageous book critics. What Martel took nine years to come up with in Beatrice and Virgil is what last night’s host Laura Fraser dubbed “meta fiction,” a Rubik’s cube of narrative not unlike Life of Pi’s structure. The book follows a writer who has become disenchanted by criticism from his editors; a character that Martel makes no bones about being a semi-autobiographical representation. The character finds inspiration renewed upon meeting a taxidermist, who needs help writing his own Beckett-like play starring personified characters based on his stuffed donkey and monkey friends that live in his shop. Oh, and the whole thing’s about the Holocaust.

It’s actually a less complicated version of what Martel had planned for the book at one point; a flipbook, “a book with two doors, but no exit,” which read one way would contain an essay about Holocaust lit, and the other, a fictional novel on the genocide.

Martel thinks it’s time to move past the strict rule that the Holocaust must be approached from a historical realist perspective because of the scope of the horror that occurred. By representing tragedy in a “non-literal, compact way,” he argues, the artist is able to create “art as suitcase: light, portable, [and] essential,” and speak to the emotional side of a tragedy where the voices of billions have been blurred into silence. Hence the donkey and monkey. He compares the need for these fictional characters to Orwell’s Animal Farm, Camus’ The Plague, and Picasso’s Guernica. One things for sure, Martel is a well read guy.

See we were totally there! Blurriness is the new artistic thing. Geez. Photo by Paula Connelly

It’s decadent really, the certain, bountifully nerdy joys involved with spending a Wednesday night watching onstage conversation with a book author. Respectful hushes. The discovery of exciting new vocabulary words. Audience opportunities to extrapolate theories of the meaning of titles and character names. Central among these pleasures, the chance to hear a person who has built their life on the solitude of reading and writing speak in front of a crowd. How do they do it, these authors? Masters of the written word, shouldn’t they be slobbering, anti-social messes at public speaking, at human relations in general?

But, scholarly as he may be, he's well spoken, this Martel. He goes so far in his gregariousness, even, to engage with Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, having sent the head of state a book every two weeks for the past three years to instill in him a deeper appreciation for the arts and their import in the character and integrity of a guy that can run a country. He holds our Prez highly, noting that, in contrast to Stephen's complete lack of response to the literary missives, Obama sent him a thank you note upon reading Life of Pi.

The whole thing’s mind boggling. A celebrity in the public eye, easeful and unworried in the face of professional turmoil enough to spend his moments onstage discussing why the leader of his country should read a Harlequin romance novel (a. the company is based out of Canada, b. they’ve sold 5.63 billion titles to date)? The man doesn’t appear to be worried. A solid endorsement of any current project, if ere I’ve seen one.

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