Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Yann Martel: The Apostle of the Other


If you are an Israeli, you should imagine yourself a Palestinian. Then you will understand why the Palestinians are angry. If you’re a Palestinian, you should make the effort of imagining yourself an Israeli, and then you will understand why the Israelis are afraid. If you’re a man and you become a woman, you understand. If you’re white and you imagine yourself black, etc. 

Yann Martel can rightly be called the Apostle of the Other because through his writing he has tried to explore the Other. He says that “in meeting the other that you start to understand, first, that you are different, and then how you are different”. His fiction has always been an attempt to travel through the strange consciousness of the Other with the aims to understand and to empathise.

Born in Salamanca in Spain in 1963 as the son of Canadian diplomats, Martel spent his childhood in Costa Rica, Spain, Mexico and Canada. After graduating in philosophy, he worked as a tree planter, dishwasher and security guard till he took up writing as a full time career. Now he has settled in Montreal with his partner Alice Kuipers and son Theo.

For Martel, storytelling is a way in which the human experience of living in this world is communicated to one’s fellow beings through the unique human tool of language. Without sharing of experiences, a human has no identity; without love, there can never be stories. As Martel says in the Big Think Interview, “the saddest thing in human terms, is to have a human being who has no stories” as “the human who has no stories is someone who has not been loved and has not been able to love”.

His fiction focuses a great deal upon the people who are robbed of their basic dignity. However, he extends his concern to animals as well because he denies the anthropocentric view of Western religion and culture. He points that the Other is important in defining what is normal and also for locating one’s own identity in the world.

His first book was collection of short stories Seven Stories in 1993 but though it was not a grand success, one of the stories was awarded the Journey Prize. Later this book was edited and republished as The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories (1993). There are four stories in this collection namely “Manners of Dying”, “The Mirror Machine”, “The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American composer John Morton” and “The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios”. They are strange stories that deal with the modern experience of life in the midst of illness, death and grief.

Self (1996) was Martel’s first novel and it had for its protagonist a nameless boy who wakes up one morning to find that he has become a woman. However, the protagonist is still attracted to women and is confused by the shift in gender. However, after remaining a woman for seven years, the protagonist turns back into a woman when raped by a neighbor. Martel sympathises with women who undergo a very personal holocausts called rape, which robs them of their basic human dignity. However, Martel explores the gendered Other and also the question of whether the mind has any gender.

Life of Pi (2001) that fetched him the coveted Booker Prize in 2002 is a fantastical tale of Piscine Molitor Patel, a sixteen year old Indian boy who travels with his family to Canada by sea and is shipwrecked in the Pacific along with a spotted hyena, a zebra with a broken leg, a female orangutan and a 450lb Royal Bengal Tiger. There are also two versions of the same story of cannibalism, one with animals and one without them. The animal version is a fantastic one; but the real version is grim and terrible. However, Martel used animals as characters solely for artistic purposes but then began to get interested in animals for their own sake and also for the wonder that they provide.

We Ate the Children Last (2004) is a collection of short stories that deal with medical breakthroughs and their consequences. The environmental Other is considered in this work as human experiments such as an animal to human transplant operation can wreck the environment in unforeseen ways. The stories are dark glimpses into the advances in science and technology juxtaposed against the need for protecting the environment. He advocates prudence in animal-human experiments as the products of these could be more devastating to the world at large.

Beatrice and Virgil published (2010) is a postmodernist novel in which the writer Henry L’Hote meets a taxidermist named Henry, who gives him a manuscript of a play featuring Beatrice, a donkey and Virgil, a howler monkey living on a large shirt in the shape of country. The shirt on which they live is affected by what they call the Horrors. As they travel around the shirt, Beatrice and Virgil tell each other little stories and folk tales, share experiences of food and try to find the right words, expressions and signs to represent the Horrors. The novel is an allegory that works at a primary level to mean the Holocaust and at a deeper level to mean cruelty to animals. Martel condemns both genocide and the killing of animals as both violate the right to live.

Martel’s attempts at being an Apostle of the Other was not limited to his fiction. He was also involved in a book project What is Stephen Harper Reading? from 2007 to 2011, in which he sent the Prime Minister of Canada one book every two weeks with his letters, book selections and responses received to a website devoted to the project. He made his intentions clear when he said in the Big Think Interview that “to lead you must read, because that nourishes your vision”. Though the Canadian Prime Minister did not respond in any way to Martel’s project, consolation and encouragement came in an unexpected manner when the American President Barack Obama sent Martel a handwritten note describing how Life of Pi has greatly influenced his life.


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