Martel, Yann 1963–
Martel, Yann 1963–
PERSONAL: Born June 25, 1963, in Salamanca, Spain; son of Emile (a civil servant) and Nicole (a civil servant; maiden name, Perron) Martel. Education: Attended Trent University, 1981–84 and 1986–87; Concordia University, B.A., 1985. Politics: "Social politics: left wing. Economic politics: confused. Overall politics: moderately nationalist—don't want to be an American." Hobbies and other interests: Writing, yoga, volunteering in a palliative care unit.
ADDRESSES: Home—Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Harcourt Brace and Co., 15 East 26th St., New York, NY 10010.
CAREER: Author. "Odd jobs at odd places at odd times." Has worked as library worker, tree planter, dishwasher, security guard, and parking lot attendant.
MEMBER: PEN Canada.
AWARDS, HONORS: Journey Prize for the best short story in Canada, 1991, for "The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios"; National Magazine Award for best short story, 1992, for "The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton"; story selected for 1991–92 Pushcart Prize XVI Anthology, Best of the Small Presses; Air Canada Award, Canadian Authors Association, 1993, for "Bright Young New Thing"; short-listed, First Novel Award, Chapters/Books in Canada, 1997, for Self; short-listed, Governor General's Literary Award for fiction, 2001, Hugh Ma-cLennan Prize for Fiction, 2001, and Booker Prize, 2002, all for Life of Pi: A Novel.
The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories, Knopf Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1993, Harcourt (New York, NY), 2004.
Self, Faber and Faber (London, England), 1996.
Life of Pi: A Novel, Knopf Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2001; Harcourt (New York, NY), 2001.
ADAPTATIONS: Fox Studios bought film rights to Martel's novel Life of Pi and assigned screenwriter Dean Gorgaris to the project.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A novel about a donkey and a monkey traveling across a landscape that is actually a shirt worn during the Holocaust by a Jew.
SIDELIGHTS: Yann Martel, Canadian author of fiction, "is being hailed as a remarkable voice," wrote Rosemary Goring in the Glasgow Herald, "the harbinger of a fresh wave of literary invention from a nation already famous for its fiction." Following in the footsteps of Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, and Alice Munro, Martel has earned international repute for his fiction, in particular the award-winning 2001 title, Life of Pi: A Novel. Born in Spain to Canadian parents, Martel grew up and has lived all over the world, including Alaska, Costa Rica, France, Mexico, Iran, Turkey, India, and Canada. His father was a diplomat and poet from the province of Quebec, one-time winner of the Governor General's Award for poetry. Martel, who began to write after studying philosophy at college, once told CA: "I write because it's the only way I know how to create, and to create is to live."
Martel's short story, "The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios," first appeared in the Malahat Review and won the 1991 Journey Prize for the best Canadian short story. Two years later, Martel published that story along with three others as The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories, in a collection that dealt with the final hours of a condemned man, an AIDS patient's imaginary life, and the debut of an amazing and rather bizarre symphony. A reviewer for Quill and Quire felt that while the title story is a "good" tale, another of the stories collected in the book, "The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton," is an even "better story, and one that more clearly says, This is something new." The same reviewer further compared Martel to writers such as Paul Ther-oux, Bruce Chatwin, Paul Auster, and Allan Gurganus. "Martel … writes in a way that makes a lot of other fiction look like, well, like fiction."
In 1996, Martel published his first novel, Self, the fictional autobiography of a young author and traveler who suddenly finds he has changed genders. The Quill and Quire reviewer praised the "candid, intelligent, likable, life-embracing, protean, chatty, smug, and mischievous" narrator of that work, which views the events of thirty years through a mirthful and perceptive prism. Similarly, a contributor to the Toronto Globe and Mail felt that Martel "wonderfully represents the child's universe in a seamless whole," calling his novel a "penetrating, funny, original and absolutely delightful exploration."
With his 2001 novel, Life of Pi, Martel continued his growth as a writer in a mixture of animal tall-tale and high-seas adventure that had critics comparing him to Joseph Conrad and Salman Rushdie. The narrator, Piscine Molitor Patel, known as Pi, is now a middle-aged man living in Canada. But as a youth, he lived in the Indian city of Pondicherry where his father ran the zoo. The young boy developed an encyclopedic knowledge of animal behavior, loved stories, and learned to practice three religions: Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. When he was sixteen, Pi's parents decided to immigrate to Canada, taking along part of the menagerie with them in a Japanese cargo ship. However, when the ship sank during a storm, there were only six survivors inhabiting a lone lifeboat on that vastness of the Pacific: Pi, a rat, a female orangutan, a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, and a four-hundred-fifty pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
Life of Pi is the recounting of the fight for survival that ensued, in which Martel, via Pi, takes the reader into the food-chain politics aboard the lifeboat. The hyena manages to devour the few flies that have been buzzing around the boat, but that does not quite stave off hunger. Thereafter the hyena makes a meal of the zebra and orangutan, in that order. The Bengal tiger then eats the hyena, and makes eyes at the young human cargo. To keep himself alive, Pi feeds the tiger the rat, but he recognizes that the only way he will be able to survive in the long term is by somehow living with the tiger. He trains Richard Parker, feeds, marks out separate territories on the boat with his urine, and comes to love the ti-ger. When they finally land in Mexico over two hundred days later, Pi is half blind, and the tiger runs off into the jungle. Because the authorities there do not believe Pi's fantastic tale, Pi tells a version with no animals involved, and suggests that they believe the better of the two stories.
Martel's blending of fantasy and nautical lore in Life of Pi prompted a reviewer for the Toronto Globe and Mail to note that the "whole fantastic voyage carries hints of [Ernest Hemingway's] Old Man and the Sea and the magic realism of [Jorge] Amado and [Gabriel Garcia] Marquez and the absurdity of [Samuel] Beckett." "Ever aware of cliches, and using them to his advantage, Pi is Martel's triumph," the same reviewer further commented. "He is understated and ironic, utterly believable and pure." Similar words of praise greeted the book's English publication around the world. "If Canadian writer Yann Martel were a preacher, he'd be charismatic, funny and convert all the nonbelievers," wrote Nation's Charlotte Innes. Innes commented on the postmodernist elements of the story: "multiple narrators, a playful fairytale quality …, realistically presented events that may be hallucinations or simply made up," even the duplicate ending at the end of the novel and the symbolism of Pi's name, as "the irrational number with which scientists try to understand the universe." Thus the author presents his readers with a "sea of questions and confusion," yet Innes felt that Martel "makes one laugh so much, and at times feel so awed and chilled, that even thrashing around in bewilderment or disagreement one can't help but be captured by his prose." Book's Paul Evans called Life of Pi a "work of wonder," while Booklist's William Hickman called it a "strange, touching novel" that "frequently achieves something deeper than technical gimmickry." In a Publishers Weekly review a contributor described Martel's second novel as a "fabulous romp through an imagination by turns ecstatic, cunning, despairing, and resilient," and an "impressive achievement." The same reviewer felt that Martel "displays the clever voice and tremendous storytelling skills of an emerging master." Los Angeles Times reviewer Francie Lin appreciated the "lightness and humor that gives it the quality of a fairy tale," and New York Times Book Review contributor Gary Krist thought Life of Pi "could renew your faith in the ability of novelists to invest even the most outrageous scenario with plausible life."
Reception of the novel in Britain was equally positive. Novelist Margaret Atwood, writing in the London Sunday Times, commented, "It's fresh, original, smart, devious, and crammed with absorbing lore." Through this novel, Atwood noted, "[o]ur customary picture of life is torn apart and through the rent in the canvas we see the real world. And it's a world of wonders, and there are tigers in it." London Times reviewer Glyn Brown felt the story was "so magical, so playful, so harrowing and astonishing that it will make you believe imagination might be the first step [in believing in God]." Allan Massie, writing in the Edinburgh Scotsman, observed, "The story is engaging, Pi's resourcefulness both pleasing and amusing." Massie further noted, "What makes this novel so delightful is its light-heartedness." And for Justine Jordan, writing in the London Guardian, the novel was "not so much … an allegory or magical-realist fable, but … an edge-of-seat adventure." New Internationalist reviewer Peter Whittaker called it an "astonishingly original novel," and William Skidelsky in the New Statesman also praised the "compelling" storytelling.
For Jane Shilling, writing in the London Sunday Telegraph, however, the novel was "flawed" by what she found to be the unbalanced structure of the book, yet she still found it a "fascinating novel—though as with some jewels, the flaws are arguably part of the charm." Toby Clements also had reservations in the London Daily Telegraph, feeling that Life of Pi "never really comes alive in the emotional sense. It is more a novel of proposition and conjecture, a series of narrative questions and solutions." Yet Clements added, "Despite this, Life of Pi is a hilarious novel, full of clever tricks, amusing asides and grand originality."
Critical acclaim also met the Australian publication of Life of Pi, with Rebekah Scott noting in the Brisbane Courier-Mail that the novel is "strange, but it draws a gleaming confidence from its strangeness." Francesca Cann found Martel's to be an "involving narrative," in a Melbourne Herald Sun review, and Michelle de Krester, writing in the Weekend Australian, felt that "what is enchanting about this novel is not the sweep of its intellectual concerns but the intensity of its imagination. Martel is a natural."
Awards committees agreed with these reviewers, and Life of Pi catapulted Martel's name into the first rank of international authors, earning him a short-list position on England's prestigious Booker Prize list, as well as a similar honor on Canada's list for Governor General's Literary Award for fiction, and the 2001 Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Book, July-August, 2002, Paul Evans, review of Life of Pi: A Novel, p. 78.
Booklist, May 15, 2002, William Hickman, review of Life of Pi, p. 1576.
Books in Canada, May, 1993, review of The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories, p. 40; June, 1997, review of Self, p. 4.
Canadian Forum, June, 1993, Merna Summers, review of The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories, pp. 41-42; November, 1996, Christine Hamelin, "Self and Other," pp. 43-44.
Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Australia), September 28, 2002, Rebekah Scott, "Zen and the Art of Believing the Unbelievable," review of Life of Pi, p. M5.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), June 1, 2002, Toby Clements, "The Tiger Who Went to Sea," review of Life of Pi,.
Evening Standard (London, England), September 30, 2002, Alexander Linklater, "All at Sea—The Boy and the Tiger," review of Life of Pi, p. 49.
Financial Times (London, England), September 25, 2002, Tony Thorncroft, "Novel Lead for Canada as Booker Begins New Chapter," review of Life of Pi, p. 6.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada), September 8, 2001, review of Life of Pi, p. D6; September 22, 2001, review of Life of Pi, p. D13; November 24, 2001, review of Life of Pi, p. D14.
Guardian (London, England), May 25, 2002, Justine Jordan, "Animal Magnetism," review of Life of Pi, p. 10.
Harper's, June, 2002, Pico Iyer, "The Last Refuge: The Promise of New Canadian Fiction," review of Life of Pi, pp. 77-80.
Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), June 1, 2002, Rosemary Goring, "Life Is a Voyage with This Star Sailor," review of Life of Pi, p. 14.
Herald Sun (Melbourne, Australia), August 10, 2002, Francesca Cann, "Pi Charts His Destiny," review of Life of Pi, p. W30.
Independent (London, England), June 22, 2002, Judith Palmer, "The Tiger's Tale," review of Life of Pi, p. 26; September 25, 2002, Boyd Tonkin, "The Finalists by Boyd Tonkin, Literary Editor," p. 5.
Independent Sunday (London, England), July 7, 2002, Robin Buss, "Adrift on the Open Sea, with Only a Tiger for Company," review of Life of Pi, p. 14.
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 2002, review of Life of Pi, p. 613.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, June 5, 2002, Charles Matthews, review of Life of Pi, p. K146.
Library Journal, June 15, 2002, Edward Come, review of Life of Pi, p. 95.
Los Angeles Times, June 16, 2002, Francie Lin, "Floating on Faith," review of Life of Pi, p. BR7.
Nation, August 19, 2002, Charlotte Innes, "Robinson Crusoe, Move Over," review of Life of Pi, pp. 25-28.
New Internationalist, August, 2002, Peter Whittaker, review of Life of Pi, p. 33.
New Statesman, July 29, 2002, William Skidelsky, "Novel Thoughts," p. 39.
New Yorker, August 5, 2002, review of Life of Pi, p. 77.
New York Times Book Review, July 7, 2002, Gary Krist, "Taming the Tiger," review of Life of Pi, p. 5.
Observer (London, England), May 23, 1993, review of The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories, p. 71; May 26, 2002, Tim Adams, review of Life of Pi, p. 15.
Publishers Weekly, April 8, 2002, review of Life of Pi, p. 200.
Quill and Quire, April, 1993, review of The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories, p. 22; April, 1996, review of Self, pp. 1, 28; August, 2001, review of Life of Pi, p. 22.
Scotland on Sunday (Edinburgh, Scotland), May 12, 2002, Michel Faber, review of Life of Pi, p. 5; August 4, 2002, Jackie McGlone, "Life of Pi: Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral?," p. 9; September 29, 2002, Alex Massie, "Byng's Formula Means Knowing the Value of Pi," p. 5.
Scotsman (Edinburgh, Scotland), May 11, 2002, Allan Massie, review of Life of Pi, p. 9.
Seattle Times (Seattle, WA), June 16, 2002, David Flood, "Life of Pi Is Exhilarating Castaway Tale," p. K9.
Spectator, May 18, 2002, Francis King, "Ghastly Crew," review of Life of Pi, p. 43.
Sunday Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), May 12, 2002, Colin Waters, "One Man and His Boat," review of Life of Pi, p. 9.
Sunday Telegraph (London, England), May 19, 2002, Jane Shilling, "Desert Island Zoo," review of Life of Pi, p. 19.
Sunday Times (London, England), Margaret Atwood, "A Tasty Slice of Pi and Ships," review of Life of Pi, p. 44.
Times (London, England), May 11, 2002, Glyn Brown, "Keeping the Faith," review of Life of Pi, p. 13.
Times Educational Supplement, December 13, 1996, review of Self, p. 33.
Times Literary Supplement, May 27, 1994, review of The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories, p. 21; November 22, 1996, Julian Ferraro, "Male-Female Experiences," p. 24; July 19, 2002, Roz Kaveney, "Guess Who's for Dinner?," review of Life of Pi, p. 25.
Weekend Australian (Sydney, Australia), August 24, 2002, Michelle de Krester, review of Life of Pi, p. R10.
Random House Web site, http://www.randomhouse.ca/ (July 16, 2002), "Yann Martel."