|Whether dying of AIDS, as in The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, or adrift in a lifeboat, as in Life of Pi, Yann Martels characters face death, fear and bewilderment. But they dont respond to these worst-case scenarios with panic, hard-nosed realism or sentiment. Instead, they tell stories.
Out of the soil of helplessness and incomprehension, colourful, fetching and implausible narratives flower like irrepressible orchids. Its as if Martel wants to show how the greatest terrors and most baffling mysteries call for the wildest imaginings in response.
The extravagant side of Martels imagination wasnt lost on a group of Lord Beaverbrook High School students who met the author at Louise Riley Library during his visit to Calgary on October 30. After Martels reading from Life of Pi, the novel that won him the 2002 Man Booker Prize and catapulted him to international attention, the first question was, "Um, the island thing? Where did you get that idea?" Likewise, the main characters name where did that come from?
The name, Martel says, came in a dream about Piscine Molitor, a Paris pool he used to swim in. As well, he adds, "I was interested in the fact that pi is an irrational number." As for "the island thing" (an episode where Pi dwells briefly on a clump of carnivorous algae in mid-ocean), it has a calculated purpose, he explains. He had always envisaged his carefully planned novel as "a competition between two stories and I wanted one to be more fantastical. I wanted something that made you take a leap of faith."
Why? "Most of the things that compel you, that move you forward, are not reasonable," Martel tells his student audience. "Love, hate, faith, belief in God these are the things that keep us alive. We need things that call on our imagination."
As a snowstorm blows in outside the picture window that backlights Martels wild hair, the students ask about imagination and reality. Yes, Martel replies, he does feed his imagination with factual research. He recommends Survive the Savage Sea, one of many castaway narratives he read. Yes, he really does attend churches of various denominations, mostly Catholic and Hindu. Listening to him, it is impossible not to see in Martel something of both the passionate teacher and the eternal student.
Martel, currently the writer-in-residence at Saskatoons public library, was in Calgary courtesy of the Calgary Public Library. Rather than basing his post-Booker life in a publishing centre like London or New York, he prefers small cities and towns like Peterborough, the southern Ontario city where he studied philosophy. The main effect of the Booker notoriety, he says, has been to make him "a spectator to his own work." Interviews and reviews offer views of Life of Pi that had never occurred to him, but that he sometimes happily adopts. One "lukewarm" review used the phrase "theology of stories." Martel liked it, and began to tell interviewers that "one thing I talk about in my novel is that stories can have a theology, a sense of where we are, who we are, where were going."
"So Im starting to use terms that people got reading my book, but terms and ideas that I didnt have in mind when I wrote it," he says.
Martels next book will once again involve animal characters and a horrifying reality. Over a slightly rushed vegetarian lunch (after a weather-delayed flight), he offers a synopsis. "Its about this monkey and this donkey, and theyre travelling on a shirt. Its going to be a fable on the Holocaust."
The books focus will not be the Holocaust itself, so much as how we talk about it, he says. "What words do we use, what metaphors, what stories? How does memory, how does language, grapple with events like genocide?"
Martel, who spent six days visiting the Auschwitz memorial, feels narrative has never truly come to grips with the Holocaust and, because of this, the story remains frozen and static, the terrible reality unappreciated.
"Nazis are poor characters in fiction," he says. Theyre just too evil. And Jews are too impossibly innocent. It doesnt work as a paradigm to live in our memories so its just ignored." Once again, Martel turns to the storytelling, fable-making impulse in order to face up to an overwhelming question.
As for my own questions, many remain unasked. What did he think about Roberto Benignis Holocaust film? How much William Blake poetry has he been reading lately? But theres no time Martel has to go. More readers await him.