Yann Martel Introduction - Essay

Introduction

Yann Martel 1963-

Canadian novelist and short-story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Martel's career through 2003.

Martel has been internationally recognized for his award-winning second novel The Life of Pi (2001), a fantastical high-seas adventure about a teenaged Indian boy stranded in a lifeboat with a bevy of wild animals. The novel was awarded England's prestigious Booker Prize in 2002 and Canada's 2001 Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction. Martel has received numerous awards for his short stories, including the 1991 Journey Prize for the best Canadian short story for “The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios,” the 1992 National Magazine Award for best short story for “The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by American Composer John Morton,” and the 1993 Air Canada Award of the Canadian Authors Association for “Bright Young New Thing.”

Biographical Information

Martel was born on June 25, 1963, in Salamanca, Spain. His parents, both civil servants, came from French Canadian descent, and Martel spent his childhood living in several different countries throughout the world, including Costa Rica, France, India, Iran, Mexico, Turkey, Canada, and the United States. His family eventually settled in Canada, taking residence in Montreal, Quebec. Martel's father was a poet as well as a diplomat, once receiving Canada's Governor General's Award for poetry. Martel attended Trent University during the 1980s and graduated with a B.A. from Concordia University in 1985. After college, he worked at a variety of odd jobs, including librarian, tree planter, dishwasher, security guard, and parking lot attendant. During the academic year of 2002 through 2003, Martel served as the Samuel Fischer Professor of Literature in the Department of Comparative Literature at the Free University of Berlin, Germany, where he taught a course in “Meeting the Other: The Animal in Western Literature.”

Major Works

The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories (1993), Martel's first published volume of fiction, is a collection of four short stories. The title story concerns the friendship between two young men, one of whom is dying due to the AIDS virus. To fend off their fears of illness and impending death, the friends share a series of concocted stories about a fictional Italian-Finnish family—the Roccamatios—which they set in the context of real historical events of the twentieth century. While the dying man's stories become increasingly morbid, the stories told by his friend become increasingly optimistic. In “The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by American Composer John Morton,” a young man touring Washington, D.C. stumbles into a concert performance given by the Maryland Vietnam War Veterans Chamber Ensemble. “Manners of Dying” is written as a series of letters from a prison warden to the mother of a hanged man, recounting the final hours before his death. Martel's first novel, Self (1996), is a fictional autobiography covering the first thirty years of the narrator's life. The narrator begins his life as a boy and wakes up one morning at the age of eighteen to find that he has inexplicably changed into a girl. He/she eventually becomes a man again around the age of thirty. The narrator experiences two extremely traumatic experiences during his/her life—the death of his/her parents in a plane crash and a brutal rape by a neighbor. Self explores themes of connection, isolation, selfhood, and otherness, as reflected in the narrator's maturing sense of self as he/she develops into a young adult and aspiring writer.

The Life of Pi is narrated by Piscene (“Pi”) Moliter Patel, a sixteen-year-old boy whose family decides to relocate from Pondicherry, India, to Winnipeg, Canada, in 1977. Pi's father had run a small municipal zoo in India, and he decides to bring some of the zoo animals with him on the ship to Canada, hoping to sell them later. After a violent shipwreck, Pi finds himself as the only human survivor in a lifeboat with a small group of wild animals—a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a Bengal tiger by the name of Richard Parker. The bulk of the novel describes Pi's 227 days on the lifeboat, during which he experiences the brutal hierarchy of the food chain first hand. The hyena kills and eats the zebra, the orangutan eats the hyena, and the tiger eats the orangutan. These events are interwoven with discussion of Pi's personal religious philosophy, which embraces Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. Pi and the tiger eventually come ashore in Mexico, where the tiger immediately runs off into the jungle. Pi is then interrogated by two Japanese officials, who refuse to believe his seemingly fantastical tale. Pi then retells the story of his survival, replacing the animals with human characters. In the new story the zebra becomes a Chinese sailor, the hyena becomes a French cook, the orangutan becomes Pi's mother, and Pi becomes the tiger. In this version of the story, the cook kills and eats both the sailor and Pi's mother, after which Pi kills and eats the cook. Pi's story is told within a framed narrative in which a young journalist interviews the adult Pi, now in his forties and living in Toronto, about his experiences on the lifeboat. While the centerpiece of The Life of Pi are Pi's adventures on the open sea, the novel also functions as an allegorical tale about the nature of religious faith.

Critical Reception

Critics have regarded The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios as a collection of ambitious, experimental fiction by a promising young author. Reviewers have applauded Martel's ability to blend resonant emotional storylines with atypical prose forms. Cary Fagan has described the short-story volume as “notable on the one hand for its warm human voice and on the other for a precocious pleasure in experimenting.” Self has received mixed reviews, with some arguing that Martel's unusual narrative structure and ambiguous protagonist make the novel overly obtuse and unsatisfying for readers. Several commentators have countered these claims and asserted that the novel's treatment of gender, self, and other are both engaging and provocative. The Life of Pi has become an international best-seller, with critics lauding Pi's experiences as engaging, compelling, and powerful, strengthened by Martel's vivid descriptions and lyrical prose style. However, some have commented that Martel's narrative structure is the weakest aspect of the novel. Nathan Whitlock, for example, has commented that, while the portion of the novel that takes place in the lifeboat “might be the most gripping 200 pages in recent Canadian fiction,” the narrative frame of The Life of Pi is ultimately “superfluous.” Many reviewers have discussed Martel's central thematic concern with the nature of religious faith and doubt in The Life of Pi, with some arguing that the novel presents a thought-provoking allegory for the powers of religious faith. Charlotte Innes has described The Life of Pi as “a religious book that makes sense to a nonreligious person.”