Yann Martel

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1,141 words.)