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Lions Roar : May 2007
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2007 25 YANN MARTEL won the 2002 Man Booker Prize for Life of Pi, an epic novel about a Hindu- Christian-Muslim boy who spends 227 days on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Now Martel is at work on his next novel, an allegory on the holocaust featuring a donkey and a monkey who travel across a shirt. The book is expected to be published in 2008. ANDREA MILLER: You once said that animals are liv- ing, breathing mystery. What is it about them that made you say that? What I find amazing about animals is that, first of all, they’re so different from us. As I’m speaking to you, my parrot is on my knee. Can you hear him? He’s this silly little guy who doesn’t have arms. He has a beak. He has two funny feet and wings. He looks so different and yet, he’s alive. The main thing is, though, that as human beings we are very proud of our intellect. We are proud of our language, culture, the science and technology we have devel- oped, the gray matter between our ears. But animals don’t have our intellect and yet they get by. In fact, they get by better than we do. It seems that with our intellect we are slowly destroying the planet. Animals, on the other hand, sometimes in quite a brutal way, reach an equilibrium with nature. I look an animal in its eyes and I wonder, What is it thinking? What is its purpose? And then the animal acts kind of like a mirror. It makes me ask, What is the purpose of my intellect? This animal gets by. I’m not sure I will. It doesn’t have an existentialist crisis. No animal does. So what drives you to write about animals? Technical reasons. I’ve found that if I use animals, it makes it easier to suspend my readers’ disbelief. We tend to know our own species very well, so we’re cynical about human characters. That means it’s easier for me to tell a story about a dentist who is a donkey than it is for me to tell a story about a dentist who is just a regular person. Also, I find it refreshing to get away from humans. We are, after all, the only species that lives in such isola- tion from other species. Now, you live in a city, don’t you? So how many other species besides your own have you seen today? As you were walking to work, you might have noticed some pigeons, maybe some squirrels... Q&A Truth in Tall Tales YANN MARTEL No squirrels. Just pigeons. And do you have a pet at home? No, though I’d love to. So today you only saw some pigeons. Any other ani- mal in nature would have been surrounded by and aware of dozens of species. Can you tell me about the book you’re working on now? It’s two books actually: a novel and an essay, each approaching the same subject in different ways. They’ll be published in one volume, back to back, upside down. In this way readers are em- powered to choose which one they want to read first. Do they prefer to use their reason by reading an essay, or do they prefer to use their imagination by reading a novel? There have been a lot of books about the holocaust. What’s different about your approach? Most fiction dealing with the holocaust uses a single literary code, that of realism. It’s about Jews and it’s set in Europe between 1933 and 1945 and it almost always follows the same narrative arc. The problem with that is that in order for us to deal with this hor- rible, evil event, we have to be able to approach it in many ways. So what I am trying to do with this book, both in the essay and more obviously in the novel, is to take a non-realistic, allegorical approach. This is something very few writers have tried. One reviewer described Life of Pi as a theology of stories, and you later took to describing your work in that way. What do you mean when you use that phrase? A good story and a good religion work in the same way. It’s called “suspension of disbelief ” in fiction. It’s called “faith” in religion. A story only works if we let it work, if we open our hearts to it. The saddest thing on earth is people who have no stories. You PHOTOBYDANIELLESCHAUB