Yann Martel: The good and the bad

Whenever I see that Yann Martel has a new book out, I anticipate something potentially exciting. Unfortunately, for fans of Life of Pi, though, Martel appears to be another one-hit-wonder. Beatrice and Virgil, Martel’s latest offering was disappointing in the extreme, and I’m pretty sure I will never be tempted to pick up another of Martel’s books again.

Having attempted The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and browsed the cover of What is Stephen Harper Reading?, Martel obviously peaked with Pi and took an immediate nose-dive into burnt-out, clutching at straws and frankly, odd.

Says Martel on What is Stephen Harper Reading?: “For as long as Stephen Harper is Prime Minister of Canada, I vow to send him every two weeks, mailed on a Monday, a book that has been known to expand stillness. That book will be inscribed and will be accompanied by a letter I will have written. I will faithfully report on every new book, every inscription, every letter, and any response I might get from the Prime Minister…”

I don’t know about you, but if I were Stephen Harper, this would just be downright irritating and arrogantly presumptuous. This book gets a big, fat X from me.

Beatrice and Virgil does make a promising start, but is too blatantly autobiographical: it tenaciously clings to aspects of Life of Pi and Martel’s own experiences as an esteemed author trying to get re-published. Its subject matter is also disturbing, trivialising the Holocaust by representing the massacre of Jews from the perspective of a fictional account and using animals instead of people. The story is simply embarrassing and the inclusion of endless pages of dialogue from a play being written by one of the characters bogs down into hair-pulling tedium. Plus, I’m still trying to figure out why Martel thought it would be a good idea to have his two main characters share the same name – Henry. Martel gives the impression that he was trying to be experimental and clever in both his writing style and topic, but the end result is just too weird and off-beat to be remotely interesting or thought-provoking.

Life of Pi, on the other hand, is a marvelous story: a stand alone gem for Martel. If you haven’t read this 2002 Man Booker Prize winner yet, it’s definitely worth it. On the surface, it is the story of Pi, a boy relocating with his family and a menagerie of zoo animals by ship to Canada. The ship, however, sinks, and Pi ends up stranded on a lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and a 205 kg Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Below the surface, it is the story of Pi’s examination of religious beliefs, faith and understanding. He simultaneously follows Hinduism, Islam and Christianity and asserts that each is compatible with the other.

The book is an easy and enjoyable read, combining humour and adventure with philosophical reflections. If you plan on reading anything by Martel, this would be the one and only.


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