Question: Why do you write allegories?
Because I think that’s the forte of art. What art does marvelously is
it takes very complex realities and it can go to their heart, it can go
to their essence, and convey it in a way that’s both very powerful and
emotionally or psychologically accurate. So I’ll give you a perfect
example of a great allegory, "Animal Farm," by George Orwell. Which
takes on what Stalin did to the Russian people, and that’s a vast,
sprawling complex story. With "Animal Farm," which is this delightful
allegory, delightful fable that takes place on an English farm, you get
none of the heavy facts of history, but you get the essence. So it’s a
story of this commune set up by animals and slowly things go wrong. And
it captures exactly in spirit what happened to the Russian people under
Stalin. So it’s a very light, powerful medium for discussing very
Question: Why look at the Holocaust
in allegorical terms?
Yann Martel: Absolutely. In
part, because it’s very hard to write a straightforward novel on the
Holocaust. The Holocaust has tended to be resistant to metaphor.
Because it was so dumbfounding, because it was a unique phenomenon, the
ferocity of it, the view of the Nazis of the Jews, the sort of idea that
they were a disease. Because of its newness to its consciousness, it
has resisted being approached by the tools of art. We tend to look at
the Holocaust in historical ways, in the mode of a witness. So in a
sense, trying to approach it as if we were journalists or witnesses,
which is why its representation is dominated by either survivors or by
historians—which is all absolutely fine, but I think we also need to
understand it using the tools of art, because art... Beyond, as I said,
conveying essence, art can show something under many, many different
angles, and that’s useful, because the more you look at it from many
angles, you get different truths, you get a newer understanding of it,
So I chose allegory simply because there are very few
allegories about the Holocaust. It has been fiction-resistant. And I
think we need to understand it, in addition to understanding it
historically, we also need to understand it through the medium of art.
feeling is that the literary arts, because they are tethered to fixed
meaning... after all, words are highly conventionalized sounds, right?
The word "table" has a fairly standard meaning. Well, if you increase
that, words are tethered to specific meanings and if you string them
together, you start being tethered to narrative, to narration. And once
you’re tethered to narration, when it comes to the Holocaust, you very
quickly end up on a train going to hell, you end up on a train going to
Auschwitz, you very quickly end up in that narrative trope. So it’s
hard to escape talking about it in the very literal, historical manner.
I suspect that uniquely among human events, because I suspect—because I
believe that nearly any human event, benefits from being treated by
artists—the Holocaust may be one of those rare instances where other art
forms may be more suitable, or as, you know, we need to be aware that
they, too, can... their language is important, too. So to be very
clear, visual arts, for example. Visual arts are not so narrative. A
painting has narrative limits. Installation art has narrative limits to
it. But precisely because of that, they can escape the narrative
gravity of the Holocaust. So I’ve seen visual arts that have, that are
surprisingly ironic, that apply the tools of irony to the Holocaust, and
that’s to the benefit of the Holocaust.
And music, the Holocaust
is obviously an extremely emotional event. Music directly connects to
our emotions. Once again, very limited narratively, very limited
narratively, music is. So, music can also be a very effective way of
getting into the spirit of the Holocaust, of what happened in that
So what I discovered reading, writing a novel inspired
by the Holocaust, is that genocide tends to be story-defeating, unless
you are a witness. And because of that, we need other means to remember
that, if we want to get the most out of a mass murder and not just let
it slip from our consciousness.
Question: Why not
focus on a more recent genocide?
Yann Martel: I
consciously chose the Holocaust because it is the defining genocide.
And also, it is unique in the sense that most other mass murders in
history were or are politically expedient. So for example, the other
great genocide of the 20th Century is the genocide of the Armenians in
Turkey. Now, that was of course a horrifying event, it was also
politically expedient. You have Turkey that was in a nationalist ferment
and the Turks were trying to establish their nation after the wreckage
of the Ottoman Empire, but in the midst of the Anatolian Plateau was
this large group of Armenians who did not speak the same language, did
not practice the same religion, practice a different culture. So they
were in the way. So the Turks decided to eliminate the Armenians, a
genocide of Armenians, that was politically expedient. The Turks did
not necessarily care about Armenians and Armenia or in Syria or anywhere
else. That’s very different from the Nazis attitude toward the Jews,
which was not politically expedient. In fact, it was inexpedient. It
was crazy to kill people who so contributed to their culture, to their
economy. I mean, let’s not forget, the Jews of Germany paid taxes,
contributed to the arts and science of Germany. It was economic
nonsense to eliminate them. So that view of the Jews as being a
disease, like malaria, like AIDS, that has to be eliminated everywhere
or else it will come back, that was unique.
So I wanted to take
the one that was the defining genocide, that has also proven the most
resistant—because in a sense, it’s the closest to our home, I mean, to
Westerners. Darfur, Rwanda, they are in foreign locales, we manage to
distance ourselves. And as I said, there’s also less government
involvement, whereas the Holocaust, the involvement of an entire state
against one of its own people, that was also unique. So it’s the one I
wanted to tackle because it strikes me as being the defining one.
How long did it take you to write the book?
Martel: Well, off and on, that amount of time, but I’d also say a
lifetime. I’ve always been interested in the Holocaust. You know, my
experience of growing up is that you are born like a little puzzle piece
and very quickly you were taught and things snap into place, so
language snaps into place, basic arithmetic snaps into place. So your
conscious is like a puzzle that’s expanding slowly. You are taught
history, and history is part of, you know, building your identity, your
social identity, your political identity, so most national myths snap,
snap into place.
One of the things, war snaps into place. War
is very simple for a child to understand, it’s, you know, you hate
someone, you go to war with them, you go to fight with them, it snaps
One piece that didn’t snap into place was the
Holocaust. It always stayed with me as a, leaving me with a sense of
puzzlement... and so that stayed with me. So I’ve always periodically
returned to the Holocaust, reading the books about it, watching the
movies. The first time I backpacked around Europe, I visited
Auschwitz. And eventually as an artist, I said, “Well, what can I say
about it?” Not being Jewish, not being Eastern European, so being a
complete outsider to it, how can I contribute to it?
eventually a few years ago, essentially in 2001 actually, I decided,
well, I’d like to write something about it. But then the success of
"Life of Pi" kept me busy for a while. But it took me roughly, roughly
Question: Why use literary devices, such as
a play within the novel?
Yann Martel: The needs of
the story. The Holocaust is a mountain from which it’s very easy to
fall off. So I used all the tools, all the climbing tools I can think
of, so, there is a play within it. There’s also a lot of literary
references, to Flaubert, to Diderot, to Beckett. Specifically the
play? Why? Because I think we tend, when we think of the Holocaust, we
tend to see it in very historical terms, which is a way of distancing
ourselves. We think of the Holocaust, we think of Jews, Poles, Germans,
Eastern Europe, which for most of us, means "very far away." Not many
of us live in the hinterlands of Poland. I didn’t want that distance.
if I set it as a play, stages can be everywhere, there’s theater all
over the world. So as soon as I say a play, people see a stage, and
that stage can be anywhere. That’s useful for me, if I don’t want you
to distance yourself historically. Also, plays are inherently oral, in
plays, people speak. I wanted orality. Why? Because language
ultimately or originally was something oral. And I find the orality of
language is where it’s most powerful. People are most powerful when
they are speaking. There they are most unself-conscious. Writing is
very much an artifice, you write and then you rewrite and rewrite and
rewrite. It can become a highly manipulated, manipulative medium.
Orality less so.
So I noticed in my research on the Holocaust,
the things that were the most moving for me, were the things that people
said. Whether the victimizers, the Nazis, the guards, or the victims,
so I wanted also something oral. To me, that was the truest remembrance
of frightened people, are what they say. Great tragedy can be
compressed in things that people say. Whereas once you get into
discursive prose, then it’s endless and it can lose people, because it’s
so long. You know, the tomes of history on the Holocaust can go on for
thousands of pages. Whereas spoken, its summation, it can be summed up
in very few words, in fact. So I wanted orality, I wanted stage, ergo a
play. Also, the play is fragmented, you get only bits of the play.
And to me, they’re like little peepholes onto a greater reality, so you
look into that peephole, and you have to start imagining what surrounded
Recorded April 13, 2010