Yann Martel Essay - Critical Essays

Martel, Yann


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.”

Principal Works

The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories (short stories) 1993

Self (novel) 1996

Life of Pi: A Novel (novel) 2001


Cary Fagan (review date April 1993)

SOURCE: Fagan, Cary. Review of The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories, by Yann Martel. Quill & Quire 59, no. 4 (April 1993): 22.

[In the following review of The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, Fagan offers praise for Martel's experimental style, narrative voice, and touching stories.]

Yann Martel's first collection of stories [The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories] is notable on the one hand for its warm human voice and on the other for a precocious pleasure in experimenting.

The long title story, which won the 1991 Journey Prize, tells of a young man's friendship for another...

(The entire section is 290 words.)

Merna Summers (review date June 1993)

SOURCE: Summers, Merna. “Re-Examining the Facts.” Canadian Forum 72, no. 820 (June 1993): 41-2.

[In the following review of The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, Summers compares an earlier version of the title story to a later, revised version which appears in the volume.]

Every few years a new writer comes along who is seen at once to be more than usually exciting, a new talent who may very well redraw our map of reality. It is surprising sometimes how little we need to read before we are able to decide this. Even a single story can do it.

That was the case with Yann Martel, whose second published story won the $10,000 Journey...

(The entire section is 879 words.)

A. C. (review date 27 May 1994)

SOURCE: A. C. Review of The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories, by Yann Martel. Times Literary Supplement, no. 4756 (27 May 1994): 21.

[In the following review of The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, the critic contends that all four stories in the volume are enjoyable and moving.]

Yann Martel, is a Quebecois, educated in English, who writes, on the evidence of these four shortish stories [in The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories]—his first published work—like a more compassionate Paul Auster. He explores the emotional and cultural impulse behind creativity but not as a self-conscious postmodern...

(The entire section is 341 words.)

Greg Hollingshead (review date April 1996)

SOURCE: Hollingshead, Greg. “Citizen ‘I.’” Quill & Quire 62, no. 4 (April 1996): 1, 28.

[In the following review of Self, Hollingshead maintains that Martel's writing demonstrates a beautiful authenticity.]

Yann Martel is probably best known for “The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios,” which first appeared in the Malahat Review in 1990 and subsequently in the third Journey Prize Anthology and after that as the title story of Martel's 1993 collection from Knopf. “Helsinki Roccamatios” is a good story, but “The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto With One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John...

(The entire section is 786 words.)

Christine Hamelin (review date November 1996)

SOURCE: Hamelin, Christine. “Self and Other.” Canadian Forum 75, no. 854 (November 1996): 43-4.

[In the following review of Self, Hamelin asserts that Martel's narrative combines good storytelling with a genuinely experimental approach, but that the book has a tendency to keep the reader at a distance.]

Self is a Künstlerroman—an artist's novel—whose challenging of conventions generates much vitality. Although it is a fictional autobiography, its unnamed protagonist is, like the author, a writer in his early 30s with diplomat parents. Yet Yann Martel would likely disapprove of any quibbling about genre: Self embraces...

(The entire section is 814 words.)

Julian Ferraro (review date 22 November 1996)

SOURCE: Ferraro, Julian. “Male-Female Experiences.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4886 (22 November 1996): 24.

[In the following review, Ferraro observes that the narration in Self rejects conventional notions of plot and character to focus on experience, judging the narrative voice in the book as often strained, pretentious, and dull.]

Self is the fictional autobiography of a young Canadian writer, from the first remembered experience to the age of thirty. In the course of the novel, the self of the title undergoes two changes of sex, from male to female and back again, has various relationships, suffers loss and terrible brutalization, writes, and...

(The entire section is 734 words.)

Nathan Whitlock (review date August 2001)

SOURCE: Whitlock, Nathan. Review of The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel. Quill & Quire 67, no. 8 (August 2001): 22-3.

[In the following review of The Life of Pi, Whitlock contends that the main body of the novel is exhilarating, gripping, and wonderful, but observes that the narrative framework of the story is superfluous.]

It's impossible to read Yann Martel's audacious, exhilarating, frustrating second novel without wondering what the hell happened. The premise of Life of Pi vibrates with promise. A family living in a small corner of India decides to resettle in Winnipeg in 1977. The family ran a small municipal zoo, and they opt to travel to...

(The entire section is 411 words.)

Francis King (review date 18 May 2002)

SOURCE: King, Francis. “A Ghastly Crew.” Spectator 288, no. 9067 (18 May 2002): 43.

[In the following review, King describes The Life of Pi as an extraordinary novel of remarkable originality.]

The cover of this novel [Life of Pi] makes it clear how difficult it is to define it. ‘Hints of The Old Man of the Sea, the magic realism of Amado and Marquez and the absurdity of Beckett.’ ‘Like a more compassionate Paul Auster,’ ‘Reminiscent of Italo Calvino.’ Reading of all these similarities between Yann Martel, widely known only in his native Canada, and these world-famous authors, many a bookshop browser may well exclaim, ‘Wow! This...

(The entire section is 878 words.)

Francie Lin (review date 16 June 2002)

SOURCE: Lin, Francie. “Floating on Faith.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (16 June 2002): 7.

[In the following review of The Life of Pi, Lin judges Martel as an original and powerful storyteller, but feels the novel as a whole is uneven in quality.]

Yann Martel's novel Life of Pi is the literary version of a large, friendly dog; hardly has it committed some mild offense than it rebounds with such enthusiasm, impishness and charm that one promptly forgives it. The book concerns the life of Piscine Molitor Patel (self-christened Pi), an Indian boy growing up in Pondicherry in the 1970s. Pi's father is the director of the zoo at the Pondicherry Botanical...

(The entire section is 795 words.)

Roz Kaveney (review date 19 July 2002)

SOURCE: Kaveney, Roz. “Guess Who's for Dinner.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5180 (19 July 2002): 25.

[In the following mixed review of The Life of Pi, Kaveney argues that the discussions of religious issues within the novel are unconvincing.]

Sometimes, the best part of a novel is not the elaborate constructions which go to create a plausible fictional world, but the single mad sentence that might be used to pitch the screenplay in Hollywood. In the case of Yann Martel's Life of Pi, the thing that makes the book memorable is not the overly cute, bordering on patronizing, narrative of how his hero Pi came to take his name, adopt many religions and...

(The entire section is 635 words.)

William Skidelsky (review date 29 July 2002)

SOURCE: Skidelsky, William. “Novel Thoughts.” New Statesman 131, no. 4598 (29 July 2002): 39.

[In the following review of The Life of Pi, Skidelsky offers high praise for Martel's vivid descriptions and imaginative, compelling narration.]

In an interview a few years ago, Julian Barnes explained why it had taken him eight years to complete his semi-autobiographical first novel, Metroland. For too long, he felt constrained by the facts of his own life as they had happened. Even though he was writing a novel, he still didn't feel entirely free to invent. Only on realising that the truth was his to embellish had the novel finally taken shape. So plausibly...

(The entire section is 342 words.)

Charlotte Innes (review date 19 August 2002)

SOURCE: Innes, Charlotte. “Robinson Crusoe, Move Over.” Nation 275, no. 6 (19 August 2002): 25-9.

[In the following review, Innes discusses the themes of religious faith and doubt in The Life of Pi.]

If Canadian writer Yann Martel were a preacher, he'd be charismatic, funny and convert all the nonbelievers. He baits his readers with serious themes and trawls them through a sea of questions and confusion, but he 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.

That's largely why I took such pleasure in Life of Pi, Martel's...

(The entire section is 2773 words.)

Yann Martel and Sabine Sielke (interview date 2002)

SOURCE: Martel, Yann, and Sabine Sielke. “‘The Empathetic Imagination’: An Interview with Yann Martel.” Canadian Literature 177 (summer 2003): 12-32.

[In the following interview, conducted in Berlin in 2002, Martel discusses his writing process, the central themes of his fiction, and his literary influences.]

To date, Yann Martel has published three books: The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (1993), a collection of short stories awarded the Journey Prize; Self (1996) shortlisted for the Books in Canada First Novel Award; and Life of Pi (2001), his second novel, which received the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction in 2001 and was...

(The entire section is 9359 words.)

Gordon Houser (review date 8 February 2003)

SOURCE: Houser, Gordon. Review of The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel. Christian Century 120, no. 3 (8 February 2003): 34-5.

[In the following review, Houser considers the central theme of religious faith in The Life of Pi.]

Canadian writer Yann Martel, winner of the 2002 Booker Prize, sets up his delightful story [The Life of Pi] with a clever “author's note” in which an elderly man in Pondicherry, India, tells the author, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” With little fanfare, he hooks the reader into a postmodern novel, with stories within the story, questions about the veracity of the story or storyteller, and an ending that...

(The entire section is 505 words.)

Pankaj Mishra (review date 27 March 2003)

SOURCE: Mishra, Pankaj. “The Man, or the Tiger?” New York Review of Books 50, no. 5 (27 March 2003): 17-18.

[In the following review, Mishra discusses Martel's treatment of the theme of religious faith in The Life of Pi.]

Halfway through Yann Martel's first novel, Self (1996), the young first-person narrator abruptly decides to write a novel that will “address this matter of God.” This sounds a bit whimsical at first. It appears to be part of the same impulse to startle the reader that makes Martel leave some pages blank in Self, or fill several of them in his collection of stories, The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (1993) with...

(The entire section is 3334 words.)

Elizabeth Palmberg (review date March-April 2003)

SOURCE: Palmberg, Elizabeth. “Man Overboard.” Sojourners 32, no. 2 (March-April 2003): 55-6.

[In the following review, Palmberg describes The Life of Pi as “a beautifully crafted novel” about the quest for religious faith.]

One of the many and fruitful exaggerations in Yann Martel's Life of Pi is the assertion, made by a minor character, that Pi's story will “make you believe in God.” With humor, incisiveness, excellent writing, and an uncompromising fidelity to the messy compulsions of the human heart, what the novel really compels is not belief in God but sympathy for those who seek God. For readers invested in the sacred, it is a...

(The entire section is 791 words.)

Gerald T. Cobb (review date 14 April 2003)

SOURCE: Cobb, Gerald T. “Adolescent Mariner.” America 188, no. 13 (14 April 2003): 22.

[In the following review, Cobb views The Life of Pi as an extremely well-written and engrossing novel about religious faith and doubt.]

Yann Martel won Britain's most prestigious literary award, the Man Booker Prize, for Life of Pi, a book that reinvents the lost-at-sea novel in quite striking terms. Martel himself has been storm-tossed in a controversy about whether he inappropriately employed the premise of a 1981 story by Moacyr Scliar. In an “Author's Note” he credits the Brazilian author for “the spark of life,” but he insists that the novel itself is...

(The entire section is 957 words.)

Randy Boyagoda (review date May 2003)

SOURCE: Boyagoda, Randy. “Faith, Fiction, Flotsam.” First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life (May 2003): 69-72.

[In the following review, Boyagoda asserts that the central narrative of The Life of Pi is a powerful and enjoyable tale, but that Martel's confused discourse on religion distracts from the novel's strengths.]

Good news came from across the Atlantic late last year. England's most prestigious literary award—the Booker Prize—had been awarded to a work that made the following assertion on its inside cover: “This is a novel of such rare and wondrous storytelling that it may, as one character claims, make you believe in God. Can...

(The entire section is 1596 words.)

Jean Smith (review date spring 2003)

SOURCE: Smith, Jean. Review of The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel. Review of Contemporary Fiction 23, no. 1 (spring 2003): 158-59.

[In the following review, Smith is generally critical of The Life of Pi, asserting that Martel offers a confused discourse on religious faith.]

This ultra-linear novel [Life of Pi] begins with, and not after, an author's note from which a word is used to summarize travel in India: “bamboozle”—soon put to use at a train station when a clerk claims, “There is no bamboozlement here.” Publisher's Weekly revealed the bamboozlement of their reviewer by referring to Martel's “captivating honesty about the...

(The entire section is 370 words.)

Linda M. Morra (review date summer 2003)

SOURCE: Morra, Linda M. “Re-Visioning Crusoe.” Canadian Literature 177 (summer 2003): 163-64.

[In the following review, Morra compares Martel's The Life of Pi with Daniel DeFoe's eighteenth-century novel Robinson Crusoe.]

The tripartite structure of Life of Pi, Yann Martel's second novel and winner of the 2002 Booker Prize, corresponds to three major periods of the protagonist's life: his adult life in Canada where he meets the narrator and divulges his life-story; his childhood in India followed by a traumatic experience at sea; and his rescue and recovery in Mexico. Initially, some cursory narrative details of the second and third of these parts...

(The entire section is 801 words.)

Further Reading


Bortolottie, Dan. “On Location.” Books in Canada 22, no. 4 (May 1993): 40-1.

Bortolottie asserts that Martel's stories in The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios are outstanding, and that the volume as a whole is “as successful as it is ambitious.”

Additional coverage of Martel's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 146; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 114; and Literature Resource Center.

(The entire section is 69 words.)