Cary Fagan (review date April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 who is dying of AIDS. The unpretentious telling is like a long spiralling descent into sadness and loss. The series of stories about the fictional Roccamatio family that the two friends tell one another to keep despair at bay is a brilliant and ambitious idea that, if not quite fulfilled, is still effective.

The natural voice comes through again in “The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton.” This time the narrator, again a young man, is exploring Washington when he stumbles upon a concert in a decrepit theatre given by the Maryland Vietnam War Veterans' Chamber Ensemble. This fascination with the peculiarly human gives much of the energy to Martel's writing and makes it genuinely touching.

The other two stories in the collection show Martel as the young writer stretching his wings, with the result that they read like workshop exercises. Yet even here touching moments occur, showing that Martel's real subject is the emotional side of our lives. Once again the Journey Prize has brought to our attention a writer of promise and already of some accomplishment.

Merna Summers (review date June 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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A. C. (review date 27 May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 exercise. He sees it rather as an ordinary human activity, believing that we are all constantly creative in our daily lives.

The title-story is about the death of a young man from AIDS. His best friend sits with him over several months while his condition worsens and the two men tell each other invented stories about the Italian Roccamatio family, each tale prompted by a particular event in a year from this century. The friend, our narrator, doesn't tell us the Roccamatio stories, we only get the named events: “1930—The American Clyde Tombaugh discovers the ninth planet of our solar system, Pluto”, “1941—Marshall Pétain institutes Mother's Day”. It is clear that the untold stories about the Roccamatios are not simply analogous to their starting-point; similarly, the AIDS patient's stories have only an indirect relationship to his suffering (he tells a quirky tale when he is near to death). Martel shows how free and yet connected to our history we are when we create, and what creative treasures the dying man is leaving behind as he relinquishes his power of story-telling. All four stories are enjoyable and touching, dealing with a wide range of subjects from a beautiful concerto, to the ways in which a condemned man deals with his final night, to a machine which makes mirrors. These are literary tales by a literary writer, but they have the crucial saving grace of narrative momentum. It is an impressive debut.

Greg Hollingshead (review date April 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Christine Hamelin (review date November 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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William Skidelsky (review date 29 July 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Charlotte Innes (review date 19 August 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Yann Martel and Sabine Sielke (interview date 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Elizabeth Palmberg (review date March-April 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)