Yann Martel tells me he is busy changing a diaper.
The author of the Booker Prize–winning novel Life of Pi and the much anticipated Beatrice & Virgil (published on April 10 by Knopf Canada) is explaining why he’ll be just a little late for our meeting. It’s easy to tell, even on the phone, that he relishes the act of diaper-changing (he’s a first-time dad at age 46, and Theo, at 7 months, is relentlessly adorable).
We meet a while later in a hotel restaurant not far from Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, where Yann’s entourage has taken over an entire section. His parents are visiting from Montreal, eager to spend time with their grandson. His wife, British-born writer Alice Kuipers (whose latest book is The Worst Thing She Ever Did), is cuddling Theo. Writer Susan Swan is at the table (she’s a family friend), and Haroon Siddiqui, author of Being Muslim, has turned up because Yann’s parents are translating his book into French. It may be a power table but, with the baby and his elderly grandparents, it’s cozy and familial, too.
“Cozy” is not a word you would use to describe Yann Martel. He is cool and cerebral, a man who takes himself and his work seriously. It becomes clear, as you talk, that he is smarter than you, more earnest and better read, a fact delicately conveyed by the slight hint of incredulity – quickly suppressed – that plays over his features whenever he mentions a book with which you are not familiar. It’s perhaps not surprising that Martel is the self-appointed literary tutor of Stephen Harper, sending the Prime Minister works of fiction every other week along with an accompanying letter (the results were published last fall by Vintage Canada as What Is Stephen Harper Reading?). He’s the kind of man you’d rather overhear than converse with: he likes to hold forth, a phenomenon best savoured from a distance.
“Cozy” is not a word you would use to describe Beatrice & Virgil, either. It’s a short novel, less than 200 pages, which tackles the Holocaust, imagining that the atrocity is visited not on Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and other “undesirables,” but on animals. Much of the novel’s key action takes place in a taxidermist’s shop crammed with specimens. In a play-within-the-novel (written by the shop’s owner), two of the stuffed creatures come vividly to life: Beatrice, a donkey, and Virgil, a howler monkey.
Clearly, Beatrice & Virgil is a big risk, even for an author whose previous novel, one of the biggest literary blockbusters of the last decade, made him both rich and famous. With this novel, his third, Martel wanted to write a book about the Holocaust that was not historical realism, bringing imagination to bear on an atrocity the way Orwell did with Animal Farm or Picasso with Guernica. He first became fascinated by the Holocaust as a boy and has spent decades thinking and reading about it. Part of his research involved visiting Auschwitz three times and travelling to Israel. “I suspect that, if we continue with the kind of very literal Holocaust witness that we have had, people will end up shutting up about it,” Martel says. “It will become this increasingly obscure event that is fading into the past. So what do you do as an artist? Artists take history, take anything, and transform it into art, and that process hasn’t happened very comfortably with the Holocaust. The only way I can be active is as an artist. So I parked my imagination next to the Holocaust, and I wrote this book.”
By all accounts, writing the book was a long, difficult, and sometimes mortifying process. The novel’s protagonist, Henry, is a writer clearly modelled on Martel. Henry’s previous book – an allegory involving talking animals – had been an international success, and he expects nothing less of his latest, which handles a difficult subject in a very experimental format: a single volume containing both a novel and an essay, which are to be published upside down and back-to-back as a flip book. In a deliciously grisly restaurant lunch scene in London, Henry’s editors shoot down the concept. It won’t sell, they say. Readers will be confused. We can’t publish it. Henry is devastated, gives up writing, moves with his wife to a new city, busies himself with music lessons and amateur theatrics.
Early in 2008, Martel tried a similar approach in a work he called The Twentieth Century Shirt, which combined a novella with animal protagonists and an essay about the Holocaust. There was a lot riding on the work, but his editors did not like it. Diane Martin, Knopf Canada’s publisher at large, says she didn’t care for the essay, and thought the project problematic since Martel had built his reputation as a fiction writer, not an essayist. There was indeed a rejection lunch – though not quite the crucifixion scene depicted in the novel. Other drafts followed (there would be five in all). At some point, Martin says, she decided to stop pulling punches and just tell him flatly what she thought needed to be done. He was taken aback, she says, but “when the final version arrived in August last year, I thought, ‘Damn it, he’s done it!’” Martel himself admits that “there is always a balance between listening to your editors and ignoring them, but there was more listening this time.”
This wasn’t the first time that an editor played a defining role in shaping Martel’s narrative. The original Canadian edition of Life of Pi, unanimously ignored by major awards juries in this country (though picked by Q&Q as a Book of the Year), contained an opening section that jumped back and forth between descriptions of the family zoo and Pi’s ecumenical approach to world religions. Martel’s British editor reordered the chapters, seeking a clearer chronology and consistency of theme. Those changes, which Martel calls minor, have been incorporated in every subsequent printing.
His publishers expect Beatrice & Virgil to provoke some controversy. Martel is not Jewish, which might inflame those who believe Jews have a proprietary interest in what gets called, in the novel, the Horrors. As he points out, there are two criticisms always in waiting for anyone who writes about the Holocaust: that you’ve trivialized it (a charge the novel leaves itself open to, given that the victims are animals), or that you’ve universalized the Jews out of it. “People who are suspicious of art might say that … it wasn’t a donkey and a monkey who died in the Holocaust, it was Jews. But those are people who don’t understand the tools of art,” he says. “To me, art is dialogue. Art is part of a discussion. Which is better: to discuss, and perhaps make mistakes, but get to a greater understanding? Or not say anything?”
Martel has called Saskatoon home since a writer-in-residence gig at the Saskatoon Public Library in 2003 clinched his affection for the city (he also has family connections there). The Canadian prairies are underappreciated, he says: people race through them to get to the mountains the way people in the Louvre rush past the Tintorettos, Fra Angelicos, and Rembrandts to get to the Mona Lisa.
Martel’s next book is set in Portugal and features three chimpanzees – in some ways, it is a book about Jesus (or Karl Marx, if you prefer), exploring what happens to a guru’s teachings after he dies. Even in his first novel, 1996’s Self, the narrator toys with the idea of a novel written from the perspective of a dog. Why animals? He’s not worried about being typecast (“every writer is eventually typecast, no matter what he/she does,” he says) or of coming off as gimmicky. It’s not that he’s an animal lover, either, though he did have pets as a child, and until recently owned a conure parrot named Fernando (it had to be given away when his wife discovered she was allergic).
What appeals to him as a writer is the way animals free the story from the confines of preconceptions and stereotypes. Martel is a man who believes in the power of stories. “If you don’t have stories,” he tells me, “things fade into silence.” As his alter ego, Henry, says in Beatrice & Virgil, “The reader’s disbelief begins to lift, like a stage curtain. Now the story can unfold more easily. There’s nothing like the unimaginable to make people believe.”