A matter of faith

Yann Martel says he doesn’t like exoticism in fiction and finds weirdness fatiguing. Which is pretty weird, given that he has just won the Booker Prize with a story about a Hindu Christian Muslim boy who spends nearly a year on a lifeboat in the Pacific with a Bengal tiger. Yet his attitude is probably the reason why his novel Life of Pi — a playful and thought-provoking amalgam of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Old Man and the Sea and The Jungle Book — works so well.

“My narrator isn’t weird,” insists Martel, “he’s an ordinary boy, simple and approachable.
I like normality that suffers trial.” And anyway, if you spend long enough with someone, exoticism wears off. “Everyone’s the same, but they express their sameness in different ways.”

Martel is not just being theoretical, he’s had lots of practice seeing through foreignness. His parents were Canadian diplomats, and he caught the nomadic bug: he’s lived and/or made lengthy travels through Spain, Alaska, Costa Rica, France, Iran, Peru, Ecuador, Turkey and India. Now he’s living in Berlin, but Montreal is his base.

“I can’t live for more than four years outside of Canada,” he says. “I’m Canadian, so ultimately that is my reference point.” It is the reference point in Life of Pi, too: Pi’s family, who are zookeepers, are emigrating to Canada with some animals they have sold to United States zoos when their ship sinks, with a “monstrous metallic burp”.

Martel didn’t intend to be a writer, but like doctors’ children who resist their fate in vain, he found himself following his father, who as well as being a diplomat is an award-winning Quebecois poet. Initially, Martel wanted to be a politician and also toyed with anthropology and philosophy. Then he wrote “a couple of bad plays, some bad short stories, and a bad novel”, and was hooked on the family trade. It was during the writing of that first novel, Self, that he began to be interested in religion and faith, preoccupations strikingly and unfashionably central to Life of Pi. A key scene in Self is a rape, written in a woman’s voice.

“But once I’d done that, I thought, where do you go? Where do you go after such a soul-destroying experience? How do you live with evil? Art is traditionally — certainly with my secular background — the answer, but art is very self-referential, whereas religion claims to go beyond the bounds of human existence.”

He is very clear about what he sees as the difference between faith and belief, and how the latter tips into the destructive fanaticism we are all so aware of at the moment. “Fanatics do not have faith — they have belief. With faith you let go. You trust. Whereas with belief you cling.” Then the novelist comes through. “One of the things I discovered, reading the founding texts of Islam, Christianity, Hinduism — a good religion works like a good novel: it makes you suspend your disbelief.”

His second novel didn’t work at all. He had gone to India intending to write it but it all came apart, and he discarded it. In the author’s note to Life of Pi, Martel claims he met a man in Pondicherry who said: “I have a story that will make you believe in God,” and proceeded to tell him a tale about a family friend, Pi. But this is fictitious. The only person who’s real in the foreword is Moacyr Scliar, a Brazilian novelist.

“Ten years ago, I read a review of one of his books in The New York Times; a very lukewarm review by John Updike. The book was about a Jew who ends up in a lifeboat with a black panther. I remember thinking, man, that’s a brilliant premise.” Then he found himself in India, at a loss, needing a story.

“I was 34, had written two books which hadn’t sold. I’d constructed nothing in my life, really. Then I remembered this premise. And suddenly big chunks of the novel came together very quickly.”

Life of Pi, as published in Britain, is rather different from the first Canadian edition. Martel sighs when I mention this. “I’m still learning my craft.” He was initially convinced that people would be “allergic to religious talk”, and delayed talking about Pi’s conversions to Islam and Christianity; this interfered with the chronology of the book and his British and American editors found it confusing. They persuaded him to trust himself. Essentially, to have faith. So some of the opening chapters have been reorganised.

What Martel does trust is his sense of what novels should be. “I write simple books and I view my readers as my equals. In a novel you must amuse as you elevate. You mustn’t be too much of a storyteller, because the reader feels kidnapped, taken in but left with nothing. You have to be a bit challenging. You really have to do a bit of everything. And at the end of the day people do come back to art. I see this in palliative care” — once a week Martel volunteers in a palliative care unit — “no one on their death bed says, ‘I wish I’d watched more television, or I wish I’d worked more.’”

Martel has begun work on his next novel, which, like Life of Pi, is a seemingly exotic attempt to answer that most ordinary of questions: how do you deal with evil? It features “a monkey and a donkey travelling a country — a real country, like what we have here, with trees and people and rain — but it’s also a huge shirt. They’re making their way to the capital of the shirt, which is called Yellow Star because of the shape of the fortifications and the colour of the bricks. It’ll become obvious that it’s the shirt of a Jew during the Nazi era.” — Â

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